Translation edited by Lisa Newman
Katowice, 1933: I'm an 11 year old boy. The German embassy is right across the street from our house. In the morning, when I wake up, I see a swastika on the embassy's flag and posters with the portrait of Adolf Hitler hanging on the building's side. I lean on the windowsill for hours and stare at the embassy building. The swastikas and the pictures haunt my days and nights, though at the time I can't tell what effect they are to have on my life.
Katowice was located near the border with Germany. Most of its residents spoke German. The horror stories we were told by German refugees who had crossed the border sounded distant and vague, however those swastikas in my window were very real.
I remember Rabbi Fogelman, who was a friend of my father's and who held my Bar Mitzvah ceremony in the great synagogue. I visited him in his house many times as a boy, and prior to my marriage I drove to Kiryat Motzkin to see him. He was delighted when I asked him to hold my wedding ceremony as well.
My older brother Aaron studied agriculture in Krakow, with the aim of going to Israel and being a farmer there. He was one of the first counselors in the Zionist Youth movement, and was a member of the Jewish Student Association. He had a literary soul; at the age of 24 he published a book of poetry. Aaron was arrested by the Germans in January 1940, with other members of the Jewish underground. This organization was the first to rebel against the Germans, as early as 1940, and their leader was Kazimierz Kot. This is a poem he wrote shortly before he was murdered:
I picked a flower from a graveyard bed
I produced honey from it
And I can still sense the chill that was there
I'll ask you, my flower,
An innocent question
What is the fate of humans there?
I only learned of the underground's activity years later, when I read in Dr. Emanuel Ringleblum's diary about the activities in which my brother played a role. His heroic character was always on my mind, and I saw him as the first hero to fall in battle against the Germans.
My second brother Salek (Szmuel) was five years older than me. He was a resourceful young man with initiative and a good technical sense, a handsome and charismatic young man. My other brother Shimshon, older than me as well, lives in Haifa nowadays. He was a quiet yet very creative man, and his original ideas saved our sister Hadassa. When the ghetto was being closed down in 1934, he managed to leave the line and after hiding and moving secretly, he made it to Slovakia in 1943 with the aid of the Zionist youth underground. From Romania he illegally traveled to Israel in 1944, and came to Kibbutz Tel-Itzhak.
My younger sister Hadassa lives in Ness Ziona. She managed to escape before the final expulsion in 1943, having left the ghetto with fake Christian-Polish identification, and worked in a farm in Germany till the end of the war.
Our mother taught us about devotion to the family and help for those in need. This latter greatly affected my decisions to save friends even when my own life was at risk in the war years. Mother was an example of nobility and endless loyalty. She participated in a lot of charities, and couldn't believe that her son Aaron was murdered till the last moment. She actually drove up to the Gestapo HQ's in Warsaw, knocked on the door and asked where her son was. She never recovered from that shock.
My father, a coal merchant, was an authoritative, impressive man and a Zionist activist in Hamizrachi movement. He was very dominant in our education, and cared for us greatly. When one of the kids was sick, he would stay at home with him and take care of him instead of going to work.
The racist Nuremberg Code was posted in 1935 and soon enough we got to see Jewish books burning in the newscasts at the cinema. I remember Einstein said on the subject that He who burns books will one day burn people. I could already make the connection between the swastikas and the troubles of Germany's Jews in Hitler's time.
As a boy, I attended the Berek Joselewicz elementary school. The boy sitting next to me was Rabbi Beser, who today lives in New York. Behind me sat Tzvi Getz, member of the tigers group of the Zionist Youth and one of the promoters of this project, the book of Katowice. He was one of my best friends. At 12 I had joined the youth group, and it soon became my home, with school and even my family home secondary to it. My counselor, Stashek Cimerman greatly affected my young personality. The values and education I absorbed from him aided me at grave, fateful times, when my life was in danger.
We didn't agree about everything. In our group, heated debates took place regarding the policy of restraint against Arab terrorism, which was taken by the Jewish leaders in Israel in these years. Unlike my fellow group members, I didn't approve of this policy after the Arab riots of 1936-1939. Shlomo Ben Yosef, the first man who was hanged, was a hero to me,
When I was a high school student, one night it was April 20th, 1939, Hitler's birthday some friends and I came to the Katowice Zeitung building, where a German culture center was located as well, and shattered the display window, with pictures of Hitler. I was arrested the following day. The officer who interrogated me was a friend of my father's. He pointed at me with a smile and told my father that his son might cause a second world war around that time, the tension between Poland and Germany began to escalate.
Upon realizing that war was unavoidable, on the August 20,1939, my parents, my sister Hadasa and I all drove to Warsaw to stay with my brother Aaron. I remember that a few days before war broke out we were sitting in a café. My mother was telling her friends how she had left all of her jewelry in Katowice, when suddenly a pleasant looking man put his hand on her shoulder, and said to her: Your'e talking about the jewelry you left behind, but there are two precious jewels right in front of you, and pointed at my sister and myself. One of the women told us that man was Janusz Korczak.
Approximately a week after Poland was invaded, my parents had decided to move to Sosnowiec, a city near Katowice. There I met friends from the youth group in Katowice, Leon Blat, Janek Cimerman and Hipek Gliezensztein. They were leaders of the Jewish anti-German resistance in the city.
When we returned to Sosnowiec in 1939, the Zionist youth members were organized to perform some underground activity: we forged ID's and used fake identities to fight the Nazis. By then we already understood what the Germans were planning for the Jews. Members of other youth groups were a part of the underground organization as well: people from Beitar, Akiva, Hashomer Hatzair and Gordonia. In early 1943 I participated in a secret meeting with Mordechaj Anielewitch, the commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, when he came for an overnight visit to Sosnowiec and Bendzin. Meeting him was a great source of encouragement to me. He explained how important our rebellion was for future generations. The purpose of our fighting wasn't victory, but dying with dignity and not being sent to die helplessly.
On the right is Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Fogelman
We knew it was merely a matter of time, before the cars that were headed to Auschwitz would stop by our city. We prepared for battle, for the sake of three lines in the books of history. My brother Salek ran a small factory for a German owner, manufacturing games for the German military clubs. About 40 Jewish children, aged 12 and up, worked in this shop, and they had red ID cards that kept them from being sent away.
The factory was the place for our nightly meetings, and that's where we prepared the fake ID's. One day my brother Salek was arrested by the Germans, who suspected he had produced extra red ID's for children who didn't work at the factory, in order to save them. He was sent to Auschwitz and never came back.
My mother and I were arrested in June 1942, and were sent to an orphanage in Bendzin. The operation was supervised by a sadist Gestapo officer from Tirol, a man named Angered, whom I tracked down and got arrested after the war. In Bendzin I saw old men, sick and crippled all gathered. I realized that we were right when we said that the transports were headed to Auschwitz, to extermination, and that we were correct to work against the Judenrat and the German propaganda, which claimed everyone was merely sent to labor camps. I finally concluded that this was going to be our end too.
A few days later, we were taken to the train station and were separated. I hugged my mother tightly and knew she was being taken to Auschwitz. Maybe I'll meet my Aaron there, she mumbled. In the last minute, my mother managed to write down a will on a small wrapper she found, which was given to me by a Jewish officer who was on the train. She wrote: Take good care of father, he needs it now. My brother Shmuel has to live in peace with his girlfriend. Samek must take care of himself and stay healthy. Heniek's (me) vigor must be channeled correctly. And take care of Hadassa, keep her safe.
Leaving my mother was very hard for me, and I can envision every detail of it till this day. I was 20 years old back then and was sent to temporary camp. On the way from that camp to a labor camp, I managed to escape.
On August 12 1942, the Germans called all the Jews to an empty soccer field, supposedly for general ID inspection. The young people who had work permits were released, and old people or mothers with their children were sent away by trains. My sister Hadassah was kept in hiding, back at home. We had a sub-tenant called Manya Wulkan, who had a year old baby at home with her. My brother Salek decided to help save the baby. It was raining outside, so the women and children were taken from the yard to guarded houses. My brother managed to slip Manya a razor, which she used to cut her wrists. In the tumult of her being taken to a nearby clinic, Salek snatched the baby and ran away, under fire. He managed to bring the baby back home, and that baby grew up to be a famous doctor in Sao-Paolo, Dr. Ignaz Wulkan.
The Sosnowiec ghetto was closed down on the August 1, 1943. I went to say goodbye to my father before entering the underground shelter where we planned actions against the Germans. That goodbye hunts me till this day, along the thought that maybe I should have stuck to him and gone on the train with him. He hugged me and said: Go, you are young and belong in there. Maybe you'll survive to tell the world. Remember what the German Amalek has done to your people. Those were his last words to me.
After the ghetto was cleared, friends from other Zionist groups organized escape missions. An Austrian-Romanian German man named Yohan Phsheid has helped us get out of the ghetto, and gave us money. Thanks to him many underground members' lives were saved, and so was mine. I'd like to mention a dear friend, Alex Katamon, with whom I worked in the Zionist Youth underground when we flew from the ghetto to the Baskid Mountains and woods. He was five years younger than me, yet he had a major effect on me. He was a charismatic man, and we always listened to him, although he was the youngest of us all. He had become a living hero before he died of a disease.
In August 1943 I left for Vienna with a group of friends, disguised as Poles. We had to quit the jobs we found there, and remained homeless and with no proper documents in a strange city. I arranged places to sleep and some forged Id's for the group members, and took care of everything they needed.
After many escapes and different jobs, I was arrested while attempting to obtain fake documents and was sent to a concentration camp named Maria Lanzendorf. This camp wasn't meant for the imprisonment of Jews, and if they discovered a Jew in there he would have been executed on the spot. One of the officers in there, a cruel man named Melanowitz was extremely mean to me after I attempted to escape and got caught again. After many inquiries, I was able to track him down after the war and got him sentenced for life.
I tried to escape twice. The first time, I was caught and tortured. The second time I made it to a hospital where some of my group members, disguised as Poles, worked as nurses. Vienna proving to be too dangerous for me, with a forged doctor's certificate on me, I drove 200 kilometers from Vienna to a city named Gratz. There, I lived under the name Doctor Stanislav Janowsky. I addressed the local hospital and was taken to work as a pathologist at the morgue. I had access to the dead patients' clothing store rooms, and so could send much needed warm clothes to my friends back in Austria. I was afraid that someone would discover not only that I was a Jew, but that I wasn't even a doctor. Luckily, the patients didn't complain
As dangerous as Vienna was for me, I did drive up there once to bring a friend, Lusia Markowic-Klopman to work in the Gretz hospital, as it was highly risky for her to stay in Vienna. After a couple of months at the hospital, I left the city for Budapest, helped by Yugoslavian partisans.
That's where I met friends from Katowice, Bendzin and Sosnowiec, and even my brother Samek. We knew that the Jews in Hungary were facing the same destiny as was for the Jews in all of conquered Europe. My friend Zelig Bayuk and I were in charge of the border checkpoint in Novgorod, through which we let dozens of Jewish young men and women pass from Hungary to Romania.
The Hungarians soon discovered our activity, and we were arrested and tortured. After that we, a group of 20 Zionist youth group members, were sent to a camp from which we were to be sent to Auschwitz. I had an idea: I presented my group to the German officers as Poles who were mistaken for Jews by the Hungarian cops. The S.S. officer who interrogated me was originally from the area of Katowice, so my answers made sense to him and he let us back into prison in Hungary. This way most of the group members were saved, and many of them live in Israel today.
My hands were cuffed when they led me to the Budapest jail. From there, the entire group was sent to Satorata Uihely camp, a camp that transported prisoners to Auschwitz once every two weeks. I used a tube of glue that one of my friends kept to hide my circumcision, and was classified as Christian in the medical exam. The others were taken to Auschwitz. An underground member named Tusha Hertzberg, whose work was mainly releasing members who were imprisoned by the Gestapo, and Jazia Gertner, who was sent with money and presents to bribe the camp supervisor at the risk of her own life, I was finally released from that camp as well and returned to Budapest, where we recovered the resistance activity.
In Budapest, I got in touch with a nightclub owner. Her nightclub was a hangout place for many of the Gestapo high-ranking officers, and in exchange for large amounts of money she used her connections to help us release prisoners. I always came to see her late at night, just before closing time, and one time I passed by a table and accidentally knocked a hat that was on it to the ground. She told me it was Eichmann's hat, and at that moment I hoped that one day I'd have the chance to knock down his actual head.
Budapest was conquered by the Red army on the January 17, 1945. We traveled to Romania and got prepared to make Aliyah. A few days before the ending of the war I returned to Katowice to find my sister Hadassa, who had worked in Germany as a Christian during the war Together we visited Auschwitz, where our family was murdered. The place made me sick. The words Yiden Nekuma (Jews, revenge) were inscribed on one of the gas chambers' walls with one of the victims' fingernails. I then decided to delay the trip to Israel, and stay in Europe to fulfill my father's will, the same will that was on the chamber's wall in Auschwitz.
I drove to Vienna, when the Avengers group was being formed led by Alex Katamon. Among them was Mordechaj Anielewitcz's brother. We tracked down S.S. and Gestapo former officers who murdered Jews in cold blood, put them to field trials and executed them upon hearing the evidence against them. These criminal were prosecuted before the Nuremberg trials, by the end of 1945.
Alex Katamon, Tuvia Freedmann and I established a research institution that collected testimonies against Nazi criminals. The evidence we gathered was passed to the Allied troops, and helped them locate and put to trial war criminals, some of whom were later executed. On September 16, 1946, I was called to Salzburg by Aszer Ben-Nathan, head of the Escape department in the Hagana Jewish defense organization. He told me that they had heard of my actions during the war and after it, and were willing to let me supervise Eichmann's capture campaign.
Eichmann wasn't discovered right after the war. One of the reasons was that he deliberately eliminated all of his pictures, which made him harder to track down. After a long search, I managed to find his lover, Maria Mistlebacher. In her house, I finally discover a photo of Eichman, the only one we could get our hands on. I brought it back to Arthur in Vienna, and he was excited to tell me how important this step was on our way to find Eichmann.
We printed dozens of copies of this picture, and sent them to police stations around the world so they could try and locate the man.
Further inquiries led me to Eichmann's family's hiding place, and I contacted his wife and children. I used to go on trips with his children and extract information from them regarding their father. One time, after months of futile attempts at locating Eichmann, I went with his children on a boat sailing in a lake at the Bad Altausee resort. I then offered to drown Eichmann's three children in the lake, as the revenge of 1.5 million children their father had murdered, but my idea was discussed and rejected for inproductiveness, out of fear it might harm our chances to bring Eichmann to trial in Israel.
The Eichmann campaign was widely covered in the world press back in 1946-1949, and it was mentioned in a number of holocaust studies performed in Israel and in books, such as Moshe Pearlman's The Capturing of Eichmann, Tuvia Freedmann and Simon Wiesenthal's books, Michael Bar-Zohar's book The Avengers, Miriam Akavia's bestseller A Different Way and the Dutch historiography Richard Stein's study of the Holocaust.
On the holocaust national memorial day of 1976, I was honored, alongside Frankforter and Beata Klarsfeld, to light a candle in memory of the six million victims at the torch in Kibbutz Tel-Itzhak, where an international college of Holocaust studies and research is located. Frankforter is the man who shot Wilhelm Gostlof, head of the Swiss Nazi party in 1936, and there are streets that bear his name in several cities in Israel.
Beata Klarsfeld is a German, non-Jewish woman who lives in Paris. She and her Jewish husband took upon themselves to search for Nazi criminals and bring them to trial, and to protest worldwide against neo-Nazi phenomena.
From right to left: Dawid Frankforter, Beata Klarsfeld, Manus Djamant
Edited by Toby Bird
Idek Fishgrund of Katowice spent the years of World War II in Tarnow. In early 1942, he assembled a few friends from the Zionist Youth group branch in Katowice, and they decided to start a resistance chamber that would work against the Germans. We possessed just a small number of weapons at the time two guns and two hand grenades.
We contacted Hashomer Hatzair men in Tarnow: Yalek Kornreich who was the group's leader, Wowek, Lazik and Ruchk'a. From Katowice, we had the brothers Willy and Ernest Tahler, who were cousins of Idek, as well as myself and Sara Koren who I later married.
I was born in Tarnow myself. My family had lived in Katowice until September 1939. After the third action in Tarnow, which took place on the 15th of November 1942, we decided to fabricate Aryan identities, in order to leave the ghetto and save lives.
One night, a messenger came from Krakow with a packet of Aryan ID cards and official stamps. I warned Idek not to open the package in the presence of his deputy from work at the German company Montanbau, but Idek trusted the man. The next day, the Gestapo came to our hiding place, took Idek away and confiscated all the documents they had found. The group members had to stay hidden and couldn't stay in one place overnight, as they were certain that Idek will be tortured and will eventually give their names away. Idek was brave enough not to frame anyone, and he withstood the torturing like a hero. Shortly after that, we heard that he was sent to Auschwitz.
Szimon Bergman (A testimony)
Edited by Toby Bird
Szimon Bergman, a furrier, was born in Lwow, Poland on the 29th of November, 1913. He lives in Stuttgart, Germany. During the war, he was a soldier in the Soviet army and in the Polish troops (the independent armored brigade). After the war, he was dismissed with a sergeant's rank. He lived on no. 18 Kosciuszki street in Katowice.
One evening in mid-October 1945, around 9 pm, two men in uniform knocked on the door of Mr. Sztapler, the owner of the building and the fur workshop. Two other soldiers stood guard by the gate. The officers had told the Jewish maid and the niece that they are from the security services and has come to perform a search. They didn't believe that Mr. Sztapler and his wife had really gone to the cinema, as they were told by the maid. They searched under the beds and started to rob furs and other valuables. The niece began to scream and they pointed their guns at her, shot her twice and hit her hand, and then ran out.
Two weeks later, another attack was committed at the Watchmaker's house, Mr. Igel. His wife was suspicious because the attackers wore uniform, and she didn't let them in. Earlier they were seen interrogating the neighbors as to whether Jews were living in that building.
Edited by Toby Bird
We had a lot of time to brood and speculate on the long trip back to Poland from Russia. We had heard already of the concentration camps and the extermination process, yet there was a spark of hope in our hearts that whispered that the stories were exaggerated, and that we must find someone when we return.
At one point, the train came to a halt. Obviously, we weren't allowed to get off, but through the windows we saw anti-Semitic Poles who laughed and mocked us: We were told that all of the Jews were murdered, yet we see them coming back in masses from Russia. When the train approached the city of Skarzisko Dolna, those anti-Semites threw stones at the cars.
I returned to Katowice, my hometown prior to the war on the 9th of May, 1946. After a three-week journey from the USSR, in inhumane conditions, this day was a celebration of our victory, since it was exactly one year after the Nazis were beaten and the war ended. The following morning we embarked on paying visits to the old apartments of family members in case there were any survivors or any news about them, but all was in vain.
Even in Russia we had heard of Poland's Jews' ill fate, but we retained the illusion that we might find relatives who had survived. Visits and inquiries in nearby cities such as Sosnowiec had yielded no results either.
Life of the Jewish Community, 1946-1950
There was a Jewish committee in the city, which was founded by the first refugees who returned to Katowice from the camps. The head of this committee was Mr. Cziszinski, and the chairman of the district committee was Majer Rostel. The office held accounts of all of those who decided to stay and live in Katowice, and of those who just passed by to look for relatives and left some information in case someone tried to find them. All inquiries made in these lists regarding my family verified the notion that we had no one left in Katowice.
The community committee aided the refugees with a small monetary grant one time, literally pocket money as well as food and clothing that were sent by the Joint for distribution. After years in Russia, during which we had nothing but rags, we were more than happy to receive second-hand clothes. This aid supported us a little in the early days upon our return. We also addressed the Polish governmental office of refugees to request support.
Restoring the city's community life wasn't easy, since so few of its citizens were actually considering to stay and live their lives there. Many wanted to go to Israel, but despite my aspirations I stayed in Katowice for 4.5 years until, in October 1950, I finally left.
Led by Israel Tajtelbaum
The Jewish committee I mentioned also developed some cultural activities by establishing a Jewish Culture Organization which set up lectures and classes and funded a new Jewish library. The organization put on shows in Yiddish at the city theatre Wisipianski, and brought actors such as Ida Kaminski, Dzigan & Szumacher and others. The committee had also organized a students' association, the chairman of which I was honored enough to be appointed as, in fact, a high school student.
Another initiative was a medical clinic for the community, T.O.Z. the society of maintaining health. Branches of this clinic were opened throughout Poland in every city that had a Jewish community. A commission for Jewish history was established in Katowice around that time as well. Its purpose was to collect, research and document evidence from the Holocaust. The head of this commission was Mr. Szternfinkel who lives in Israel today. Besides the local Jewish committee, a religious union was active in the community as well. Leaders of this union were, among others, Josef Wajnberg, Binjamin Mensfeld, Szmuel Nute Szolowic. I was secretary of the religious union for about 3 years, from 1947 till the end of 1950.
The union was also in charge of kosher slaughter of chickens. The supervising butcher's name was Segal. A kosher butchery was owned by Mr. Felczer. The non-Jewish residents were jealous at us because they only received small portions of meat in exchange for vouchers, while we could buy how much we wanted. There were Jewish unions in every big Polish city, in which the Jewish community was recovered. The central union was located in Warsaw.
In spite of the communist regime in Katowice in and in entire Poland, some Zionist parties emerged and were legalized by the authorities. Among them was the General Zionists' Union party, and its young branch, the Zionist Youth, a succession of the group of this name from before the war; Zion's Laborers, Hamizrachi and Hashomer Hatzair, which all administered social and political activities in order to prepare their members for Aliyah immigration to Israel.
The movements cooperated when it came to Aliyah and to the future of the Jewish state that was about to be founded. Joint mass rallies were held in celebration of events such as the Zionist congress taking place, the decision of the state's founding of November the 29th 1947, and the very establishment of the state.
I was among the post war Zionist Youth founders in Katowice after the war, and was chairman of the branch between the years 1946-1950. We recruited many of the city's young Jews, and our group was one of the largest in town. We would organize lectures and public debates and addressed various issues, but most of all Zionism and the land of Israel. We had Hebrew classes and sang songs of Israel, and even published a bulletin which was named Lamatara (To the target).
The activity was almost daily, and took place on Saturday afternoons and on Sundays every week. Our goal was to give the children knowledge and information of what was happening in Israel, and so prepare them for Aliyah. We celebrated the Jewish holidays and had Purim and Hanukah parties as well as field trips on Lag BaOmer. We were in contact with other branches in Poland and with the main branch, directors of whom were Lolek Rubinsztein, Tzvi Kimel, Hilel Zajdel and others. Our representatives in the main branch were Dan Grinszpan, Szternfinkel and Sonja Zelikson.
In addition to all of the above, the members were taken on summer and winter camps. These camps were an enjoyable and functional chance to meet group members from all of Poland. Most of the time was dedicated to intensive lectures about Israel ,as well as field trips, parades and bonfires.
I must mention a public debate we had, concerning Benjamin Zeev Herzl's book, Altneuland, which was a fascinating reading. Attendance was maximal. We had a trial, in which a prosecutor I was honored to take that role and a defense attorney were chosen to discuss the ideas brought up in the book.
The movement members also participated in all the events that were organized by the Zionist parties in town, wearing their distinct uniform. We had the honor to host in our branch important Israeli leaders who came to visit, such as Itzhak Grinboim, who was later elected Israel's first Minister of Defense; Moshe Kol, another Israeli minister, and Dr. Moshe Kleinbaum (Sneh), a member of the parliament.
The Zionist Youth took part in the 1st of May parade on the streets in 1947, and it was the first time that a Zionist movement walked in a parade along with Polish Boy Scouts and Polish parties after the war. We carried a poster that read:We demand the establishment of a Jewish state. I was thrilled when I got to salute to the district's governor, General Aleksander Zudski, who sat on the front stage with his entourage and was elected president a year later.
When the founding was announced by the UN in November 1947, we sat by the radio in the branch center and celebrated together. In April 1948, we participated in an impressive ceremony, the unveiling of a memorial to the warriors of the rebellion in the Warsaw ghetto. I also remember a reception that was held for the first Israeli ambassador in Poland, Mr. Israel Barzilay, who was later appointed Israel's Minister of Health. I greeted him briefly in Hebrew, in the name of the Zionist Youth group.
The group continued to work regularly until 1950. Many of the members had left for Israel with their families. In the summer of 1950 I was summoned for an interrogation by the secret service, was subtly warned that my work with the children wasn't appreciated, and that it'd be best if I left Poland.
I prepared to leave the country as quickly as I could, and my only regret was leaving my parents and brother behind, but they weren't issued Passenger's visas. After I left, the branch's activity gradually diminished until it was closed down completely by the end of 1950. The Jewish committee of Katowice held a big party for me the night before I left. On the 5th of October 1950 I left Poland alone on my way to Israel.
Edited by Toby Bird
Michael Gilad, who was named Bronislaw back then, stood at the door of the villager's house, thrilled and anxious. He remembered everything the yard, the attic, the gateway, and the Zimons the Polish family who hid him and saved his life.
He knocked on the door, and it was opened by Regina Zimon, 86 years old, who examined his face. She recognized him with excitement. None of them could have stopped the tears from running when they approached one another and hugged. The meeting between the saviors and the man they saved took place rather recently, 45 years after the saving was conducted. The old Polish woman recognized Michael. Her 92-year-old husband, Conrad, was lying in bed. His sight brought back to Michael's mind all the hardships of that time: while the revenge against the Nazis will never be complete, Gilad played a role in settling some of their bill. He was 65, director of the general ministry of missions in the World Zionist Union, spent many years as an officer of the Israeli police, during which he was in charge of gathering evidence against Adolf Eichman and the crimes of war he had conducted while participating in the extermination of Jews in Poland, Russia and the Baltic countries.
At the trial, Goldman (Gilad) was the prosecutor Gideon Hauzner's helper. He was one of the few that witnessed the execution and cremation of the Nazi criminal, and he was the one who eventually scattered his ashes over the sea. His personal story inspired Chaim Guri's movie, The 81st Strike. These days he is working towards putting to trial Josef Scwamberger, the Nazi criminal who hit him 80 times with a whip.
Gilad was 14 years old when the war broke out, and he escaped with his family to Przemysl, Galicia, an area that was then seized by the Soviet troops. He was sent to a labor camp after the Nazis conquered the city in 1941, and was then taken to Szwenja concentration camp, and from there to the Auschwitz-Birknau complex. In January 1945 he was taken among 14,000 other prisoners on a death march:
We marched over 100 kilometers, it was snowing, and freezing cold. S.S. men shot anyone whose legs had failed, and bodies rolled down to the sides of the road like garbage. With our last energies we made it to a deserted camp near Gliewice from where we were taken in open train cars, snow falling on our heads, squeezed together like cattle. When we were ordered off of the train, I figured I had nothing to lose by trying to escape as the guards were going to shoot me anyway when I'm out of energy. Besides, I remembered how one prisoner I met, a Rabbi from Hungary, had found a good omen in the number that was tattooed on my arm. He said that the numbers sum up to 17, which represents the Hebrew word for 'good', and that it meant I had to start making plans, because my life was going to be saved.
On the march, Michael went on, I was wearing a work overall I had from camp. The Jewish prisoners were marked with a red line on their overall, but slowly I had managed to scratch it off almost entirely. The day of my escape, we marched through the village of Wielopole. The citizens looked at us silently from both sides of the road, saying nothing. Some of them were actually crying.
I decided that this was my moment. I quickly dragged my friend, Chanan Ansbacher, who worked and lived with me in camp, and we crept away between the people. Another friend who shared our shack suddenly appeared next to us; the three of us climbed up to the first attic we happened to see a cowshed and hid ourselves in a pile of hay.
The three, shivering with fear, didn't know whether the housekeepers had noticed them. After a short while they heard voices speak in German in the courtyard. Several days later they learned that those were S.S. soldiers who were looking for escaped prisoners. At night, the sound of shooting and of dogs barking was heard for hours, and when they peeked they saw the Germans running around with flashlights. The following morning they heard someone climbing up the ladder. Were they discovered? Was it the end?
A beautiful, 16-year-old girl appeared at the door. She didn't speak, but simply put a jug of milk and a loaf of bread on the floor and took off. They didn't dare approach the food because they thought it might have been a set-up. Eventually, they were overwhelmed by thirst and hunger. Michael crawled to the opening and pulled the food in, and they all started on it, starved.
The girl returned in the afternoon, and this time she came inside the attic. She said her name was Stefa and asked in Polish who were they and how many of them were there. Michael tells us that he felt it was too early to uncover themselves, and so he replied, in Polish with a Silesian accent, that they were three Polish political prisoners, and that his name was Bronislaw. The girl appeared happy to learn that they were of them, but it didn't really matter for her all that much.
She said that her last name was Zimon, and that she lived with her parents. Her father was a train worker, and her mother a housewife. She worked as a clerk in town and had an 11-year-old sister. Stefa asked to keep the voices down so that the neighbors won't know we were there.
For entire week, Stefa would come up to the attic twice a day, bearing food and drinks and would talk to the hiding people and tell them of things she's heard on the news. Together they waited for the day the Germans will retreat. Harsh battles took place in the village area around the end of January 1945, and the village was eventually taken over by the Soviet troops. 'We hugged one another with joy when we saw the Russian soldiers,' says Michael, We went downstairs and kissed. They were happy we were saved, and we couldn't even begin to voice our thanks for giving us our lives back. We told the Soviet soldiers of how nobly this family had treated us.
The following day, the village was being bombed by the Germans, who were trying to re-conquer it. Most of the villagers were evacuated and we helped the Zimons carry their belongings to the next village. On the way, Regina told us that they spotted us when we came into their yard and entered the cowshed, and that S.S. men came in searching for us merely minutes afterwards. She said that she was with her 11-year-old daughter and they both saw us, but told the Germans that we passed through the yard and continued to the nearby forest.
The roads split in the next village. The three refugees turned east, In order to stay as far from the front as they could, and made it to Krakow, which was already in Soviet control. Michael returned to Katowice, hoping to find any relatives, and ultimately volunteered to the armored corps in order to fight the Nazis. He travelled to Israel on board the immigrant ship Hatikvah, but it was stopped by the British at sea, and he was arrested and sent away to Cyprus. Because of this, by the time he got to Israel in 1949 his friends Chanan and Eli already lived there.
Gilad had tried to locate his saviors for years in order to thank them, but all of the letters he sent were returned with an unknown address stamp. He wasn't eager to visit Poland when it was finally made possible; he said it seemed to him like one big cemetery of the Jewish people. Not so long ago he overcame his restraints and travelled to Poland with his wife Eva. He wanted to show her the shack he lived in in Auschwitz, and most of all to contact the Zimons.
The village they lived in proved to be much harder to find than he had expected since it wasn't on the map. it took an entire day by taxi just to drive around to the area and ask people about it. It was finally discovered that the village was attached to the town of Rivnik, and that's where the exhausted cab driver was told to go. In the years that had gone by, the village was hardly changed at all, and Gilad could make his way easily to the Zimons' house.
After they calmed down a little from the meeting, Gilad and his wife sat down with Regina and Conrad, and for hours told one another their histories of the last 44 years. Regina showed Michael a picture of him she kept because she knew he would return some day, he or one of his friends.
We sat together in the run-down house. They used to have money, back when Conrad worked at the railway company, but it was all gone after he retired. They lived in poverty, yet the house was clean and well preserved. We were offered tea and cookies. They told us that after we escaped the village was taken over by the Germans for another three months, during which Stefa was brutally raped by Russian soldiers. Only after Germany surrendered did they return to their partially destroyed house and renovated it. They heard that other prisoners who attempted to escape in this area were shot in the woods, and a monument was built in the woods in memory of these 400 Auschwitz prisoners.
Michael had met the younger daughter, Agnjaszka, who was now a grown up woman, a mother and grandmother, who lived with her parents due to their financial situation. Before he left, Michael left them a 100 dollar note on the table. At first they refused to take it, but after he insisted it was for presents for their grandchildren, they admitted they had simply never seen so much money before.
Michael then proceeded to Ribnik to see Stefa. She had raised her own family, married a salesman and they had three daughters. There were many tears poured here as well, and Michael finally sensed some sort of closure. Upon his return to Israel, he addressed Yad Vashem museum and asked for the Zimon couple and Stefa to be named Righteous Gentiles (Chassidei Umot-Haolam) as it was the least we could do for them after all they've been through.
In a letter he received a while afterwards, the younger Zimon daughter told Gilad how happy his visit made her parents. She said that it took her mother many days to recover from the great shock, and that she mentioned him many times through the years but didn't think he was still alive they were certain that in case he made it to Israel, he must have gotten killed in one of its many wars. But, subconsciously, they have always hoped he'll return some day. His visit brought back all the memories, and the sights of the skinny, skeleton-like prisoners being marched across the village bare foot and rag clad. She told him how she sensed that something was happening when they arrived, but was ordered by her parents to keep quiet.
Today, with this meeting behind him, and so is Eichmann's trial, Michael Gilad concludes: When I saw Eichmann's body being cremated with my own eyes, I still didn't feel like this was it. I didn't enjoy it when his ashes were taken out from the oven in Ramla prison, I saw a handful of ashes and remembered a heap of human ashes we were ordered to scatter around the camp in Auschwitz so that the S.S. officers won't slip on the snow. Only then did I understand just how many people, men and women and children, were murdered and cremated there, hundreds of thousands of bodies it took to create such a heap. I had one little revenge on Eichmann. One day, when we sat in his chamber for interrogation, I noticed that the table was covered with dust. And then I, who was grinded into human dust in Auschwitz, told him to clean the table. And he did, with German thoroughness. He then leaned over, looked at the table and asked: Is that alright, commander?
I said it was alright. It was a Jewish man's revenge
Sofia Kuzniew - A Testimony
Edited by Toby Bird
Our family owned a grocery shop, and there were two of us: my brother who's 2 years older than me, and myself. I was 8 when war broke, and was already a second-grade student. My brother and I travelled to our grandmother's village for the summer vacation. The roads were then blocked and we had to stay at grandma's. My parents lost each other and most of their belongings during the bombing on Katowice. My father ended up on the Russian side, and my mother returned to Katowice. We resumed going to school in 1940, but had to stop 6 months later because Jewish children were no longer allowed to do that.
We missed our parents very much, and were depressed by the distance. In the meanwhile, we wrote to our mother and she wrote back. 8 months later she was informed that our father was alive on the Soviet side. Until 1941 our area was rather peaceful, and most definitely calmer than in Katowice. Mother tried hard to get to us, and finally she made it. Around that time our father had managed to cross the border, and our family was re-united. We all lived together until we were thrown out of our apartment in 1943.
We were banished to the next village with our little belongings bundled on our backs. For months, we lived in strange Jews' houses and then lived with my uncle in Bdzozow for a week. One day, all of the Jews were ordered to gather in the stadium at 6 am. We didn't go. Something told us that death lay there. We hid in the house of villagers we knew, a day here and a day there. We had to split up - I remained with my aunt, and my brother was with my parents since no peasant was willing to hide such a big group of Jews. I spent two weeks with my aunt in the house of a peasant named Orlowsky. He was a good man and gave us food, but he was too scared to keep us and we had to leave.
I missed my mother badly, so I left my aunt and went solely to look for my parents. An auction took place that day. I couldn't find my parents who were hiding in the woods and didn't return to the peasant's house until nightfall. We slept in the attic together that night, but in the morning we were asked to leave. I returned to my aunt with my father and I said goodbye to my mother. She and my brother took off, and I haven't seen her again since.
I could no longer stay in the same place. We split up again: my father moved forward, and I went to my teacher's house. I stayed overnight, and the next day she sent me to the house of the priest in Bdzozow, where she advised me to request shelter as the priest's niece. I had some 40 kilometers to walk. I got lost, but had no choice but to move on. The hope of finding shelter kept me going.
I reached the priest's house in the evening. I told them everything, and the priest's sister took me in. There were 3 more children staying in her house. It felt like heaven, being there after all the wandering. They treated me like their own child, taught me to speak Polish and sent me to school. I was also taught the principles of the Christian religion. When I wanted to know what had become of my parents, they sent a messenger to Bdzozow. That's how I heard that they were shot to death by the Germans.
I mourned their death greatly, but buried my grief inside me. The Gestapo paid frequent visits to the priest's house, because a few Germans were killed in the woods nearby at that time. I had to appear very calm, so as not to turn myself in through showing anxiety or excitement. I went through hell.
After a long time on the road, my aunt has also managed to get to the priest's house, and then she drove by wagon to where I stayed. She lived with us for a couple of weeks, but them my guardians gave her an Arian ID and sent her to the priest's mother.
They did all these things without second thoughts or calculations, but my aunt left after a while on her own and registered to work in Germany, hoping there she won't need to fear that someone will recognize her/ She would write to me frequently from Germany.
This was my life until the arrival of the Soviet army. After we were released, I was registered for high school. My aunt left for Switzerland and managed to contact my uncle who was in Lyon, France. He wrote to me and sent me souvenirs. He even came to Poland to take me to him.
I can't leave the people who took care of me with all their might and were second parents to me, who risked their lives for me and shared with me everything they had. I love them a great deal, and has befriended their older daughter, 21 year old Janka. I don't wish to return to Judaism. I'm good the way I am now, and I am happy. My adopting family isn't anti-Semitic, and they'll never speak ill of Jews in my presence.
My soul is peaceful, after Iv'e found support in my religion. I love the Christian religion. My name today is Sofia Kuzniew. I will not go to France with my uncle. I live in Chmjelnik and attend the fourth grade in high school.
[written down by W. Sobol-Maslowska in Katowice, August 1947]
[Previously published in Lochamei Hgettaot Bulletin no. 21, May 1959]
Malka Nojhof (Mingelgrym)
Edited by Toby Bird
My family, the family of Golda and Benjamin Mingelgrym-Ostrowski lived in the town of Chrzanow in Galizia, and then moved to Katowice. We were 7 brothers and sisters, out which I am the only one who immigrated to Israel prior to the war, in 1935. My brothers wanted to go too later on, but weren't able to get hold of exit visas to Israel.
My brother, Moniek-Mosze was the only survivor from my family. When the war ended in 1945, I received a letter from him that was sent from Bergen-Belzen after the camp was released by the British army. In the letter he wrote that he was at the camp's hospital, and that he couldn't even write on his own and had asked for a friend to write for him. He added that they intended to leave for Sweden that same day.
After this letter, which was dated July 9th 1945, I received no further news of my brother. For years I have tried to inquire and find out what has happened to him, but I wasn't successful. I guessed that he must have died, otherwise he would have written to me. A few years ago, I wrote to the Red Cross in Sweden and asked for their help in finding out whether my brother had indeed come to their country after the war and what happened to him if he did. It took the answer nearly 6 months to arrive, and it was that my brother didn't appear on the list of refugees that entered Sweden around that time.
In October 1988, my son was about to travel to Germany. He planned to visit Bergen-Belzen and try to find out what happened to my brother after he left this camp and- in case he died- whether he had a proper Jewish burial. He tried to check the opening days of the camp site, but didn't get answers from either the German embassy in Tel Aviv or Lofthanzas tourism department. Eventually, he called Yad Vashem. They didn't know about the site's opening hours, but invited him to come and go through the many documents they have from Bergen-Belzen. He drove up there immediately. The workers were very helpful, and after searching the archives he was directed to microfilms that came from an organization called I.T.S.- International Tracing Service, which existed in Poland after the war and had gathered information on refugees and survivors from central Poland.
In these documents he found that my brother, his uncle, died and was buried in the city of Lubeck. The date of his death and the name of the cemetery appeared in the documents as well. We tried to figure out just how come my brother ended up in Lubeck, a port city in northern Germany. The likeliest explanation is that sick people from Bergen-Belzen were sent to Sweden by train. He probably didn't make it through the trip, and died on the way- in Lubeck.
My son flew to Lubeck in October 1988. He found my brother's grave within the Jewish cemetery, in a special section for Jews who survived the camps and died after the war. 43 years after my brother's death, my son stood at his grave and said Kaddish in his memory, and in memory of all the Jews who were buried in that graveyard.
In memory of my mother,
Chana Zelda daughter of Jacob, who was murdered in Belzec
Edited by Toby Bird
|Poland's roads are mourning, and we drive them with burning eyes.
Our heart is full of illusive visions, and is about to explode with yearning.
Our eyes see fields of green and harvest, all our heart can see is wilderness.
Poland may be filled with goods, but it's but emptiness without Jews.
Our eyes see villages and towns, all our heart can see is graves.
Anywhere you'll go, you'll see evergreens, all our heart can see is tombstones.
Our eyes see houses and streets, and our heart- nothing but debris.
We even see cities, big and small, and in our heart- a questioning look
Eyes that ask for the meaning of this evil storm, that came from above and hit the Jews.
And a penetrating look tears the heart apart, and the heart is in strife.
The Polish see a setting sun rising, and I saw night and a darkness, crying
The gentiles drive cars and wagons, while all the time I travel by trains
In cattle cars, without air or space, and my ears are drowned by the rattling of wheels.
For you, Polish people, this music is jazz- while my ears are blown by cries from the chambers of gas.
My strangled sisters, my slaughtered brothers, my heart is engorged with your burned bodies
And it is heaped with holy souls, and pure spirits whisper in its halls
And they are alive in me and in my offspring, and will live forever as long as Israel's alive
As long as there's a soul in my body, your heart, mother, will beat alongside mine.
Poland's roads are mourning-
For me, they all lead to Belzec
And that's where they end.
Nathan Grinboim, 14.10.1994
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