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[Page 358]

From the Warsaw Ghetto
through Majdanek and Auschwitz

by Glike Szajnboim, Chicago

Translated by Pamela Russ

 

Between Warsaw, Nowy Dwor, and Pomiechowe

All the terrible problems that we experienced before arriving in the Warsaw ghetto were nothing in comparison to what we saw and what we experienced in the Warsaw ghetto itself. It was horrible to see the distress and pain of our brothers and sisters who were herded together from the surrounding cities and towns into the hell of the Warsaw ghetto.

Thousands of homeless died mainly from cold, hunger, and filth. Now, all in one night, the rich and respected people were left only with what they had on their backs. It was gruesome to see the dead on the streets, as they were covered only with paper, because the clothing had been removed for those who were alive and desperately needed to warm their frozen bodies. Mournful were the cries of the children who wandered in the streets, homeless, begging for a piece of bread.

In the beginning, in our own home, we did not suffer that much. My husband was still working at that time and earned enough for a little piece of dry bread and some watery soup for us and for our children, but slowly our house too was captured by poverty and pain. My husband worked very hard and still didn't earn enough money to satisfy our needs.

We, the older ones, could figure something out to deal with the hunger, but the poor children – they needed a small piece of dry bread to still their hunger and I couldn't give it to them. One couldn't even dream about some sugar or a drop of milk. The rations that we received with our cards barely lasted a few days per month.

The already terrible situation became even more pronounced in the summer of 1941, when the Germans began their war with Russia. There was now a terrible shortage. That bit of food which we were able to buy at a high cost now disappeared. We were deprived of everything and one couldn't even get that little piece of bread. We began to feed ourselves with turnips and with the watery soup that we received from the aid committees, but the hunger became more and more torturous.

At that time, my mother was in Nowy Dwor, together with my brothers who worked very hard for the Germans. When my mother found out what was going on in the Warsaw ghetto, she wrote to me that my children and I should come to her to Nowy Dwor. This was not a simple thing then. I had to steal my way across several Hitlerist outposts, but first I had to get out of the Warsaw ghetto.

I boarded a tramway, dressed as a Christian, holding the hand of a small child, with the other two children at my side. I passed through the guard in the ghetto; then I boarded the small train and rode to Legionnowa (Jablonna). From there I still had quite a way to go, a “stroll” of about another 20 kilometers to Nowy Dwor. This was the worst part of trying to smuggle across the border. It was very easy to fall into the hands of the Hitlerist murderers that guarded the manmade borders between the Reich and the General Government. I dragged myself with the sobbing children, continuously comforting them saying that soon we would have plenty of bread. That gave them, and me as well, strength, until we finally came to our little hometown, Nowy Dwor.

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Here better times really did begin for us. My children and I did not suffer from hunger. My husband, who remained in Warsaw, earned enough to sustain himself and save a little for us. My mother and my brother helped us too, and I too had begun working and earning some money. All this was immediately evident on my children who already looked better.

However, this situation did not last long. The mayor of Nowy Dwor, the infamous Volksdeutch Wendt, and his assistant Bauer began their cruel, Hitlerist work. They saw that too many Jews had run off to Nowy Dwor, that typhus “ruled” among them, so they organized a “delousing” that they implemented in a completely animalistic manner. First, they herded all the men and women to the shores of the Narew River; then they chased them all into the freezing waters. Whoever was reluctant was pushed into the water or shot on the spot. I too experienced and was present at all these random acts at the Narew.

At that time, while they took us to the Narew, they emptied our houses, took everything, and when we returned we had to sleep on the bare floor. (We slept in our clothing, always ready to get up and flee.) And like that, in that position, I heard terrible screams at night, the shattering of breaking shutters, and shooting and abuses of the Jewish police. The Jewish police were under the command of Hershel Mordes's son, one of the Commandants. In his murderous acts, he was indistinguishable from the Nazis. He chased out all the Jews from their homes to assemble them all in the middle of the marketplace. The stampede to the marketplace was accompanied by beatings from all sides. We were surrounded and whoever did not have a pass with permission to be in Nowy Dwor was removed and sent to the Pomiechowe camp. My children and I were sent there as well.

In the Pomiechowe camp we lay down on the bare cement floor, were not given any food, and each day, more people were shot.

The Nowy Dwor Judenrat (Jewish Council) would bring some warm soup, but the hunger was so overpowering that the starving people would throw themselves onto the pot trampling one another until the pot overturned, and the people actually licked the little bit of soup off the bare floor. For the German murderers this was one of the best forms of entertainment that they created out of people's deprivation and pain.

I and my children would undoubtedly have died had I not had a school friend there, a German from Nowy Dwor, from the [cellars], Lydia Boldyn. Her brother, Gutek Wilde, saved me and my children from this hell and smuggled us into the second hell – the Warsaw ghetto.

 

Relocations and Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto:

In Warsaw, after a short time, I lost my youngest daughter because I had no food to give her. Now the real horrors began, the famous “relocations” from the Warsaw ghetto. In the beginning, they evicted all the sick people from the hospitals, all the prisoners from the jails, and everyone thought “they don't mean me! but those who became a burden on the community.… “

Then they took to organizing “shops,” that means work–locations for hand workers and craftsmen. Everyone wanted to secure himself with a work place, and this [cost] many thousands of souls. Because of that, I had to hide myself both by day and by night. I had very little food on reserve, so a double terror began, of deathly hunger …

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… and fear that we shouldn't be packed off to the gas chambers of Treblinka.

The Jewish police in the Warsaw ghetto searched and combed through all the corners and performed well for their German providers as they offered up the “shipments” to send off to the gas chambers. They nabbed men off the streets and snatched children from their mothers, figuring that if they do so, the mothers will voluntarily follow to be with the children. If one of the captives managed to successfully tear himself from the captor's hands, a chase along with major whistling ensued until, in the end, they recaptured the victim. That's how they chased hundreds of thousands from the Warsaw ghetto to the gas chambers of Treblinka, and those captives went as sheep to the slaughter.

A difficult struggle for life began. My brother told me that a cousin of ours was a foreman in a German company that was working in the ghetto, under the name of Mangelzohn. We went to her with great pleas for her to save us. We spent several days with her under the open sky and waited for the “paper,” a type of work permit that the Jewish police accepted. With this paper, my husband could already walk openly on the street. One day, however, the German murderers were short in number for their “shipment” to the gas chamber, so they themselves went on a hunt for victims. They locked several gates, surrounded them with Ukrainians, and whoever just approached, was captured. Work permits did not help here anymore, and they were not accepted. The first of these types of murderous Aktzias [roundup for transport to gas chambers] began on our street. (At that time, we lived on Zamenhof 38.) The entire street was filled with Hitlerist gangs. My husband left at that time to work, taking my dear brother along with him, who then never returned from there.

We stayed in the house, it was already afternoon, and the Aktzia had ended. Through the window of our home on the fifth floor, my oldest daughter saw that the street was filled with SS men, and she began to scream. I just about managed to lock the door when we heard shooting and shouting that all residents should come out of their houses and go into the courtyards, and whoever would be found in their houses will be shot on the spot. I hid the children in the hiding place that had been prepared and I remained alone, waiting hopefully that my husband would come with the papers in his hand and that would save us from the evacuation.

To our great good fortune, the bandits did not feel like climbing up to the fifth floor and in the last minute, my husband did arrive to save us. But tragically, he himself was caught. The Hitlerist gangs, not looking at his working status, shoved him into the large group that was sent off to the so–called “umschlagplatz,” (transfer point – a square where Jews were gathered for deportation to the extermination camps) that was near Muranowska Street, surrounded by barbed wire and encircled by armed Hitler murderers.

Late at night, the Jewish police bought off the German guard posts, and a trade began to try to buy off some of the victims. Whoever had thousands was able to save himself from there. My husband had no money, but he had a brass watch that, at night, looked like real gold. That's how he bought his way out of that hell.

In my courtyard, the Aktzia began again. At 5AM, after a completely sleepless night, there was another alarm. The house was blocked off by the Jewish police and everyone had to go down into the courtyard. I was helpless and did not know what to do with my children. This time, the police came up to the fifth floor, broke open the door to my house, and they sent me and my children down to the courtyard. As if by miracle, once again, my husband appeared. This time he encountered a more civilized …

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… block Commandant who acknowledged his work permit and we all returned to our home. After that, we were afraid to go out into the street. Even my husband was afraid that they would no longer recognize his work permit. For many days we lay hidden in the small attic without a window, in a hiding place that was obscured by a cupboard where you could squeeze your way in through a small side door. We were all depleted from hunger and cold. I eased my way out of the hiding place only at night to cook something warm so that we could get through the day.

And always – new torments. The terrible day arrived when the order came to assemble on Wolynska Street. It was then called “the kettle” because things were cooking there as if in a kettle [where everything] from small to big, young to old [boiled]. Everyone gathered there for fear of being shot if found in the hiding places. We did not leave our hiding place. We thought it would better to be shot on the spot than be sent out to be gassed. We already knew then where the Jewish transports were being sent. So, we stayed in our hiding place. My brother's wife and her two children hid with us as well, along with a few others from the families of the building's residents. We were eighteen in total in that hiding place. The first day went by peacefully. The murderers were preoccupied with the “kettle” on Wolynska Street.

The second day, the house searches began. We were all lying in the dark, suffocating from the heat and heavy air. Miraculously, the children were quiet. They were not crying and not asking for food, except for my sister–in–law's oldest son who gave us a deathly fright. He screamed that he wanted a drink, just as the searches in our house were in full force. His mother covered up his mouth with all her strength and with that saved us all from a sure death. On the third day, she and her child left the hiding place and went to the “kettle” not wanting that she and her unsettled son cause the deaths of eighteen people.

One day, it was the second day of Rosh Hashana, they removed the guards, and all the Jews assembled in the “kettle” were sent out. After a gruesome Selektzia [selection for work or for death], approximately 50,000 Jews were selected, with over half a million still remaining in the Warsaw ghetto. For these remaining, certain streets were designated where they were crammed in, hermetically locked up.

This time also, we were all lucky and all of us remained alive. Things became calmer; one could think that now – the beast had satiated itself with people's blood and now things would be quiet. After some time, my husband once again received a work position. He began working and soon earned some money. We were now able to go about freely in the house with our children and not stay hidden somewhere. But my cup of problems, it seems, was not yet full.

Like a clap of thunder from heaven, the death of our two children came upon us after they were poisoned by eating some dumplings that my cousin brought from the store. The dough had been kneaded with arsenic, probably for the mice that had greatly increased in number in the ghetto. I had tasted a small bit and had given the rest to the children so that at least this once they could eat to their fill. Immediately, the children had stomach aches, terrible cramps, and there was no doctor to be found. That's how their pure souls expired – my two children, one nine years old and the other six. Life then became depressive for me. I wanted to die, but I had no energy to do that…. I suffered for several weeks until I recuperated. People comforted me, saying that at least the children had died in their own home, in their own beds. What kind of death was waiting for us? I allowed myself to be comforted and continued to live with searing pain in my heart.

The next few months …

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… went by relatively calmly, maybe too calmly. It was the calm before the storm.

Whoever was able, built a bunker somewhere, a place to hide, and gathered food products from wherever they could, with the hope that the war would soon end and all you had to do was get through these few months. We did not build a new bunker because we had no money for that. We stayed in our small room, without a window, and hoped that we would be able to save ourselves there.

But that which we all dreaded, came about. It was Pesach of 1943, on the first seder night. We wanted to conduct the seder as we were accustomed to do for years. But that's when the great battles began in the Warsaw ghetto; the gruesome murders of those few remaining Jews in the ghetto. My husband, cousin, and I who lost everything in the Nowy Dwor ghetto during the evacuation, rushed down into the dark bunker as we already heard the German tanks entering the ghetto.

The ghetto was filled with shooting; the grenades ripped up and burned down the houses along with those who were hiding there. We saw our end; we would be burned to death in the closed bunker or be shot by Hitler's bandits as we left the bunker. We sat in the closed bunker and we heard the steps of the murderers who were going around and plundering the houses. (Before burning down the houses, they first stole everything.) We heard the explosion of a bomb over our house and saw the flames that encircled the house. It was dangerous to go out because the bandits were waiting for us to go out and then they would shoot us on the spot. But I already felt that we were burning and choking on the smoke that was tearing into us from the burning house. I screamed to my husband that even if the worst things were going to happen, he should open the bunker, I didn't want to be burned alive.

At the last minute, we managed to get out of our hiding place. The entire house was surrounded by flames. My husband dragged me into the unknown. You couldn't see anyone around. We got out on the fifth floor and then from the rooftop we tried to get to the next house that was not yet burning. That's how we saved ourselves from death.

We dragged ourselves around like that for a week's time across the half burned houses, across roofs and in cellars. Dirty, drained, and frighteningly starved, until one day, May 3, 1943, they informed on us and we were given over into the hands of the executioners.

We were a large group. We were all stripped naked and set out with our faces against the wall. We were sure that we would be shot, but it turned out in the end that we were taken to the umschlagplatz [transfer or departure point from which Jews were deported to Nazi extermination camps], reassuring us that we were being taken to work. We were packed into freight trains, with 120 people or more in each car. The cars were locked, without a drop of air to breathe, without food, and without water. The people in our car were falling from their feet. We stepped on the dead and I envied my poor children who were finished with all this.…

The train dragged on. It began to rain, and the rain seeped in through the cracks of our car. We tried to quench our terrible thirst with this rain, but it hardly helped. My husband pulled out a ring that he still had hidden with him and for that he got a little gutter water from one of the Ukrainian accompanying guards.

More dead were dropping in the car, the air was suffocating. We heard train signals and then we arrived in the infamous train station of Majdanek.

 

The Welcome in Majdanek

We wanted to get off the train as quickly as possible, no matter what was going to happen, as long as we got off the train that was polluted with the dead! They took us into horses' stalls, they gave us a little …

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… water to drink and we spent the night there, until morning, when the work of murder began.

The first word that we heard was: “Selektzia!” A selection of people. The healthy ones, and those whose appearance was fine, still had some hope of staying alive so that later they could release their souls from the murderously hard, inhuman labor in the camp.

They took us, five in a row, from the train station into the camp, escorted by Hitlerist guards with their huge dogs. If someone faltered in the midst of this, the specially trained dogs finished him off.

As soon as we arrived in the camp, they separated me from my husband. I stayed close to my cousin. After going through the showers, we received thin shirts instead of our clothing which they took away. We were taken to barracks among thousands of women. We slept there for a week on the bare floor. There were no beds or cots in the barracks at all.

At 3 AM, we were already awoken and then we learned a new word of the camp lexicon: “Appel” [roll call]. That means we had to dress quickly, go out in front of the block, and get into rows so that they could count us. The counting took hours, it was cold, and we huddled close to one another to try and get some warmth. Doing this, however, was strictly forbidden and you were beaten for this.

Finally, around six o'clock, we were herded in groups to go do work such as take out garbage, carry heavy stones, etc. My job was to carry those heavy rocks. As soon as I started to work, our foreman, Brigida, hit me over the head with a brick because according to her I was carrying rocks that were too small.

On the second day, I ran away from the group and hid behind the blocks. They began to chase us and beat us with metal truncheons. We were then over 8,000 women from all nationalities, but our executioners quickly figured out what to do with us.

In the morning, after the Appel, we were ordered to remain in our places. All the Jewish women stood separately. A Selektzia took place. The sick women were sorted out, and many healthy women were included with the sick ones, because they looked primarily at the condition of the feet (in the winter, they looked for frozen feet, and in the summer they looked for burned feet). These people who were not good for work were transported to the gas chambers of Majdanek. I was among the healthy ones because I had brought with me from Warsaw a pair of boots that I had not yet removed from my feet – not during the day or at night, for fear that they would be stolen. Thanks to them I had healthy feet and this saved me from the Selektzia.

That same day, they put about 1,000 women into the ovens, and among them was my 26–year–old cousin, since she had burned feet. I remained alone. I saw my husband only from time to time through the barbed wire. One was not permitted to speak to anyone.

Once, we met while at work, and as he was passing by, my husband said a few words to me. The SS man noticed this and he hit me over the head with his pointy rod. I was immediately covered with blood, an eye became bruised, and for a few weeks I could see nothing. Also, for this “terrible crime,” my husband received 25 beatings with a stick on his bare body.

Soon after this event, slowly they began to liquidate the camp. Transports were always leaving, there were always Selektzias, one after another. Three times I managed to escape the transports, but as I looked around I saw that I remained with only old and sick women who were not being sent out but were shot on the spot.

Because of that, I voluntarily presented myself to one of the transports. They took me on because in their eyes I still looked …

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… healthy enough so that they could use me for work. By chance, they took us over to the “men's place” where I communicated with my husband. There was also a transport of men that left, of which my husband was one. We waited all night at this place. In the morning, everyone was given a half a kilo of bread with a small piece of stinking cheese, and then they loaded us onto the trains.

 

With Nowy Dworers in Auschwitz

After twenty–four hours, we finally arrived at the extermination camp of Auschwitz.

As soon as we arrived, they shaved off all our hair. There we met a few familiar men from Nowy Dwor. Their wives had been burned to death as soon as they came to the camp. These men, meanwhile, remained alive because they were strong and in good health. They began to talk to us and told us the “good news” that no one ever leaves this place. Here you waited sooner or later, to be finished…. We already knew this. Auschwitz was familiar to us just from hearing about it.

What can be worse than Majdanek? But – as was evident – there was yet a worse inferno, and that was Auschwitz.

In Majdanek, the crematoria was disguised, but in Auschwitz everything was open. A few steps from our block – one crematorium. A little farther – another. And in Brzezinka, in the forest – two more crematoria. Yes! Four crematoria in one camp. I saw them with my own eyes and I didn't go crazy in front of this torment. How is this possible?….. But it is possible. Because if you wanted to survive, if you still wanted a chance to live, first you had to look well. If you didn't, then you went directly into the ovens.

The hard labor in the Auschwitz camp began. We were awoken to the Appel at 3AM and then were herded to work at 6AM. I was assigned to one of the most difficult jobs. In the month of October, I stood in freezing cold water, and did my work. That's how I worked for a few months until I became ill and couldn't go to work anymore. They had to carry me out to the Appel. My feet had an infection in the joints, and I couldn't go out to work at all. I had to hide under the straw mattress because if you didn't go to work that meant you were sick, and if that was so, then you had to go to the “reweers” [infirmaries] that were a place for the sick, and from there, it was a direct path into the ovens.

I cursed the years that I had: Why did God give me so much strength, to survive and tolerate such pain, in order to be burned to death in the ovens after that? The people in the camp were falling like flies from the difficult, inhumane labor, from the various, contagious diseases and from filth. The four gas ovens operated in full steam by day and by night. The air was contaminated from the fumes that were carried from the people's roasted and burned bodies.

I was not able to “cover” myself with my illness for long. They took me to the hospital. I lay there for a week's time and the fear of a Selektzia did not allow me to rest. I discharged myself quickly from the hospital and once again I was in my barrack in the camp. An incomprehensible strength built up inside me: You have to remain alive and God does not want to take your soul from you.

I saw my husband at a distance when they herded us to work. We could not speak among ourselves or we would receive murderous beatings. My husband was always looking for all kinds of connections and from time to time he got a little food for me maintaining the feeble hope that we would remain alive. I found myself on the so–called “visitor” block where one did not work so hard, but from here they took you more quickly to be gassed. Because of that, once again I set myself up with the hardest labor, simply in order to prolong my bitter life a little more.

How did I have the energy …

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… to survive all this? Where was this source in me with this steely will to survive and get through this – I couldn't understand. I want now to describe one of my days that I will remember my entire life. I was left with a heart problem as a result of the beatings that I received from the camp Commandant. It was a very foggy day, and on a day like that, they were afraid to take us out to work lest someone use the fog to his benefit and try to escape.

We were standing set out in front of the barracks waiting until some daylight would appear. Then a camp Commandant arrived for inspection. This was a known murderer. If someone fell into his hands, he never came out alive. He found a small piece of turnip on me, and then he started to beat me and kick me, so that I was rolling on the ground for so long until I was left half dead. I couldn't move; everything ached. I couldn't sit, and I couldn't lie down. But I remained alive and continued to suffer.

At that time, they also sent my husband away with a transport to Germany because Auschwitz was beginning its liquidation. The murderers sensed that their end was near. They began to dismantle the chimneys. They stopped the burning and we started to live with the hope again that we would survive.

But my future life did not shine – why? My children were not alive, I knew nothing about my husband, my family had been murdered, I was alone, a broken shard. I could hardly stand on my feet. But the will to survive and live to see the defeat of our enemies, the animals and savage people, to take revenge, this was the root of my will to stay alive.

But until the complete defeat of Hitler's bandits and until our liberation, we had to wait a long time, suffering and struggling, until the long–awaited day of January 18, 1945, arrived.

 

The Eve of Liberation

In an instance, the murderers became our providers…. One of the female Commandants came into our barrack with this information: It seems that the Russians were approaching and they wanted to rescue us. Therefore, we would immediately have to march deeper into Germany. This march of ours went on for three days and three nights.

All those who couldn't keep going on this march were immediately shot. They chased starved skeletons without giving any food. Our only nourishment was the snow on the road, and that's how we dragged ourselves to some sort of railway point where they loaded us on. After that, we went on for another three full days.

Frozen and starved, we dragged ourselves further to Germany to the tragic women's camp of Ravensbruck. The daily food ration there was 100 grams of bread and a half liter of turnip soup.

Not long afterwards, they began to bomb the camp. Again they tried to “rescue” us and took us to another camp by the name of Neustadt – Glewe. According to the way things looked here, they finally would have to finish us off. Here they did not use gas but they used ordinary means, like not giving food, and people would die of hunger. I couldn't move any longer, and there was no one to help. Everyone was exhausted from hunger. There was nothing to cook, so for long weeks we sustained our lives with raw turnips. We received meagre portions once a week, and even that was not every week.

The air raid sirens and the bombing did not stop. We finally saw the end of this gruesome cataclysm. But along with that, I also saw my own end. I was flickering like a light, and was slowly fading. My feet were horrifically swollen and I …

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… lay like stuck down to the boards of the bed. Oy! How I wanted to live to see the liberation! I only want to survive until this anticipated day! But they still dragged us to the Appel. They were not counting us anymore. A terrible bombing attack came on and we were ordered to go into the blocks. But we didn't hear the order and we stayed outside. The camp Commandant was now going around in civilian clothing. He looked like a beaten willow branch [on the day of Hoshana Rabba, toward the end of the Succos holiday, a bunch of willow branches are beaten on the ground and then cast aside].

The women were discussing among themselves how all the executioners were all ready and packed up, just waiting for the chance to leave. They locked us in the barracks, but we broke open the doors and did not allow ourselves to be locked in. We felt that now we were the rulers and we controlled them.

The general sense of joy caught me too. One forgot that he was weak, sick, and starved, and a new life force began to flow. We would live and see their miserable end.

First, we threw ourselves into the food storehouses. To eat – that was our most urgent desire. The storehouses were no longer being guarded. All the guards and the Commandant had run away for fear that we would kill them. We stormed the gates of the camp. Freedom! The long desired and dreamed of freedom had finally come. Everyone was singing and dancing. There was no limit to the overall joy.

And for me, I always cried: Why? Why did my children and dear ones not survive? Why am I so lonely and alone? Where should I turn and to whom shall I go?

Yes! I lived to the most beautiful moment of my life. With my own eyes, I saw the end of those murderers. In the greatest moments of the excitement, they ran off, half naked, just to save themselves from our revenge.

The American tanks were entering the camp. They showered us with all kinds of food stuffs, chocolate, and other luxuries that we hadn't seen for many years.

I was now free, I was now satiated, and now what? First I wanted to find my husband. Maybe he was still alive? I and a friend of mine from the camp took to the road. Our goal was to get to Poland. The journey took us just two weeks. We went on foot, we went on the rooftops of the trains, and we went by wagon, until finally I came to my former home town of Nowy Dwor.

 

Amidst the destruction of Nowy Dwor

Here the great destruction awaited me. I did not find any of my close ones, and did not find my dear husband, which had been the greatest hope for my future life. Nothing! No one! Only strangers, Christian faces of unfamiliar people, and if I did finally meet a Pole that I knew from the town, then he looked at me in wonder: “What? You're still alive? You, such a weak one, you survived?”

In the town, the few Jews who survived got together. We created a committee among ourselves, we got some help from Warsaw, I regained some energy, and began to work.

After staying in Nowy Dwor for a few months I received wonderful news that my husband was alive and was in Germany, in Bergen Belsen. My husband did everything possible. He sent me a special messenger, and after being apart for a year and a half, we met again on accursed German ground, but now under completely different conditions.

The agony was still terrible that we were left alone, without our dear children and without any close family. We found our comfort in the hope that we wouldn't stay long on this cursed, bloodied ground.

Our road was to Israel.

 

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