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Between the Jaws of Destiny (cont.)

Through the Broken Fence

Making our way to Czenstochowa was a complicated operation. As movement by train was forbidden to Jews, we had to be accompanied by Poles so as to camouflage our presence and to confuse the enemy as to the true nature of our group. After many trials and tribulations, we managed to make our way to the town and smuggle ourselves into the Ghetto.

The rumours that this Ghetto was relatively quiet turned out to be true. Although there were problems, these were not evident on the surface. The community tried to be quiet and to hold on in spite of what was happening elsewhere, hoping to survive until things got better. During that time, we even managed to get letters to Zloczew and I remember when my father got a letter from my Uncle Cohen and he said - “I think his hand was shaking when he wrote this letter, he must have all kinds of problems over there. My sister, who came to Czenstochowa with us, did not enter the Ghetto, but returned to Warsaw and stayed there with my Uncle Stefan.

In the Ghetto, the Jewish community was split into various groups who worked in ammunition factories or one of the Marber lager factories. My father managed to have himself posted to one of those groups after obtaining the right permit with great difficulty.

In time, my Uncle Stefan found out that an action to move people out of the ghetto was imminent and that these would be taken to various camps for liquidation. To warn us, he came to Czenstochowa and started to walk around the Ghetto wall hoping to see somebody he can pass the message to. Alas, the Ghetto doors were locked and well guarded by Ukrainians gendarmes so that anybody who was not on duty could not enter. He walked to and fro, without attracting attention to himself and tried to look for something to attach the news to. As he was expecting problems, he already had a note prepared on which he wrote the relevant details, planning to throw it into the Ghetto at the right opportunity.

By chance, as he approached the Ghetto gate, I saw him walking nearby. When he saw me, he threw the note wrapped around a stone, across the wall and left. Seeing that, I curiously approached the stone to see what it was and started reading it quickly in case somebody saw me and stopped me from seeing the note. My uncle told us in the note about the impending liquidation the Germans were preparing and that he had prepared an apartment near the Ghetto belonging to a Pole and told us how to leave the Ghetto and get into that apartment.

As the note related to the children only, I took my little brother when darkness fell and crept under the Ghetto fence and made our way to the prearranged hiding place in the apartment. Our arrival did not raise any suspicion as it was expected and after half an hour or so, a special messenger sent by my uncle arrived and told us to follow him. He led us thorough the streets in a roundabout way under cover of darkness and brought us to the house of another Pole, where we were placed in the basement. This was essential as people expected that Jews will try and escape the Ghetto and the natural suspicion will fall on the houses nearest the Ghetto. All night long we stayed in the damp basement, which was full of rats and mice without getting any sleep and my 8-year-old brother was completely panic-stricken, but worse was to follow.

With morning, we heard the voice of the house owner shouting at us to leave the basement, as she was afraid she would be found out and we stood there in the open air, not knowing where to go. We were sure that any false step would bring us straight into the devil's hands.

The Czenstochowa Ghetto

In the Church of Jesna Gora

We took our first steps with fear in our heart, but slowly and surely we were emboldened and started looking for a natural hiding place. We knew that we could find my uncle, but that was only possible in the evening and until then, we had to find some sort of a shelter. We passed by the municipal park and thought innocently that we could find a hiding place there. We went into the park only to find out how wrong we were. Our presence there raised too much suspicion and in a short while we had to leave.

We were getting hungry by then and when we passed a little kiosk, I bought something to eat. Not far from that place, the famous church of Jesna Gora was located and when I saw it, I recognised the famous towers from a picture I saw in a book before the war. So I thought that if we managed to enter the church, it would probably be the safest place to be. Walking toward the church we sere surprised that nobody tried to stop us from getting in. Perhaps they thought we were just local children or were apathetic as to our present situation. But it was not the end of our worries. The fact that we were never in a church before could betray us.

My brother did not know that you had to take your hat off and we had no idea what to do when praying, as it was all alien to us. We had to look sideways to see what other worshippers were doing and so we managed to get used to the new situation and got into a routine. We stayed there till evening and when darkness came we made our way out and headed to my uncle's house. This time we were lucky and a messenger was waiting for us. He transferred us to a Polish house used as a hiding place for several Czenstochow Jews who escaped from the Ghetto.

The flat belonged to a Polish widow whose daughter was in contact with the underground and it was they who facilitated the transport of people into and out of the Ghetto. The Jews were transported into a boarding school belonging to the church, which was also working for the underground. So, right from the start, Jews were placing themselves into that boarding school instead of going to the Ghetto. We stayed with that woman for a short while, perhaps a few weeks or less and during that time the Germans liquidated the big Ghetto and left the small Ghetto with just 5,000 Jews from a total population of 40,000. Those people who stayed were working for the Germans in various industries making armaments and other war materials.

Later on, my sister arrived from Warsaw to find out what happened to us. As she was of Polish appearance with false papers, she managed to move freely and so she was the contact between members of the family, which were scattered in Ghettos and with Polish people in various hiding places. When she arrived in town, she found out that all the remaining family were taken to Treblinka and murdered and that only my uncle and my sister-in-law Paula remained. Somehow, my sister managed to get Paula from the Czenstochow Ghetto and into a hiding place, but in spite of that, one of those days when my father brought her sister-in-law to the flat where I was staying, she told me to pass her to another flat.

Without parents, my uncle became our guardian in the fullest meaning of that term. He had multiple contacts in the Polish street and the money he had gave him the power and influence to be able to work on our behalf and thanks to that he managed to get us some German identity papers called “Kancarta”. It is perhaps worthwhile telling how we actually managed to get these papers.

We had an old friend, a convert in the town who had to, as part of his job, register births and deaths. Perhaps he knew about my uncle's nationality, but he ignored it, or perhaps he was not sure. In any case, it was easy to understand that he had some idea about it. When my uncle asked him to try and get the necessary papers, he managed to obtain a death certificate of a Polish citizen, destroy it, but after taking the details off it - the name, surname, year of birth and so on and turned them over to another person who had to register in the people's registry. The man was alive and well but, having a false identity, had to keep away from the town, otherwise the people who used to know the dead person whose details he now had, might find him and expose him to the authorities. Of course his own details must match those of the dead person.

In such a way, my uncle arranged false papers for the three girls - my sister, Paula and myself, and for my brother. We were all like regular Poles now, but this was not the end of our problems. If we arrived at a place where the dead person's whose details we carried were known to the local population, our presence would arouse suspicion with all the dangers involved. So, we had to find places where we had not been before and nobody would recognise us. I had the idea then of going to a resort, used to having all manner of visitors at all times of the year. In the General Government area where we were, it was forbidden to move from one place to another and the only places where citizens could register temporarily were resort places. This suited us and so we headed to a small resort town near Zakopane, called Rabka.

We reached the town by train and went to the senior registrar at the town hall to be registered as taking a holiday in that place and of course it was understood that our arrival at his office was prearranged for a generous payment. He registered us as required and also rented room for us in a house, which was used by tourists to the area. And so we stayed in that place, my sister, the sister-in-law of my uncle - Paula and myself, while my little brother stayed for the time being in his hiding place near Czenstochowa. My uncle, in due course, also brought his two daughters to that place and found them accommodation in a special resort for children.

In constant tension

Our lives at the town of Rabka were marked by tension and readiness to leave at all times mixed with a feeling of persecution and fear. We were completely under pressure all the time because danger lurked at every turn. When we went for a walk, we had to pay attention to the fact that we were not the only Jews at that place and the cunning that served us so well so far, also found its way to many of our brothers and sisters of Israel. When we saw them, we felt the fear and trepidation in our heart and just for an instant we felt with them the depth of our tragic situation. Although the terrible fear prevented us from identifying ourselves to other Jews, we did not even dare look again or look back at our Jewish folks and outwardly we had to pretend very hard to be good and true Polish Christians.

When Christmas day arrived, we managed to obtain a Christmas tee and sung Christmas songs as Christians did. In spite of all our efforts, it was not enough. Perhaps it was the fault of other Jews who could not manage to conceal their identity enough. As a result, some Poles discovered what was going on and the rumours of hidden Jews in the town with false papers spread from person to person and spread around the town. There were incidents of disputes or arguments between local Poles who threatened each other to expose the hidden Jews.

As far as I was concerned, my fate was to experience a tense situation when a neighbour commented to me once that I had a long nose like a Jewish women. He who is familiar with that sort of situation will know my great fear when I heard these comments. Outwardly, I just smiled and said nothing. In time, large posters appeared in the town in which the German commandant asked people to evacuate the hotels and inns or the town itself within 24 hours and if this was not done, people will be killed. When we found out about those posters, we were greatly disturbed, as we had no place to go. We went out to find a telephone and contacted my uncle who told us he already knew about it and calmed us by saying that he will come in person and sort it out. True enough, in a few days, my uncle reached Rebka and after a short conversation he went straight to the senior official who fixed our false papers for this place and after an exchange of words and some additional monies he managed to get us an extension where we would not be disturbed for at least two weeks.

It is worthwhile noting that this exchange of words was conducted by my uncle as a member of the Polish underground who had to do all kinds of illegal things for the cause and the name Jews was not mentioned – G-d forbid. This temporary extension that our uncle managed for us pushed us to find a better solution for the long run. And so my uncle went with my sister to Warsaw to see if he could find her a refuge there. In the meantime, we found out that following the notice to evacuate the place, the Germans entered several Hotels and Pensions and took out Jewish tourists who were betrayed by local Poles. They were interrogated and sent to an unknown destination.

The house we stayed in, on the second floor also housed a mother with two small children and somehow when we saw her we felt she was Jewish and she may have felt the same, but we never exchanged a word. Then, one clear day, the Germans entered her flat and without saying anything, just took her. This raised the curiosity of the neighbours, but we pretended that it was nothing to do with us and we were not curious about it although we were absolutely terrified when we saw what was happening. On second thought, if the Germans had already been to our house without molesting us, perhaps we were O.K. After two days, we had a call from my Uncle who told us that in a few days my sister will come to take the children to Warsaw and I must leave with her and she will then tell me what address to go to. He added that I had to approach the owner of the Pension where the children were staying and tell her that we were going to leave on a particular day and to prepare them for the road.

Our house keeper had another pension in a different part of town where other Jews were housed following intervention by my uncle and now a few hours after our telephone conversation the woman came and told us that the Germans came to the other Pension and took the people away. It was understandable that this frightened us as the papers provided for those people came from the same place as our papers using the same methods. And so, the connection might lead them to us. On the other hand, the housekeeper sat in our room and talked about it quite casually while she looked at us as if to examine us. We told her that we were leaving that night, as was the case with the other pension and she might have made the connection. But we tried to ignore what she told us as if it did not matter. Perhaps it was all about black marketeers.

Behind this façade of indifference, our hearts were beating fast and we felt as if the ground was burning under our feet. The winter was in full flow, snow covered the fields, houses and roads and it was almost impossible to move around in motor vehicles. Everything was on skis and we had to find the children's place and then the railway station and so, although it was still early we were determined to leave the house as soon as we could, so as not to be surprised by an unexpected visit. As preparing the children for evacuation took some time, we decided to go to their place first and so on the way to see if we could find a sledge to go there and from there to the railway station to meet my sister and to go with her to Warsaw.

Fate, however, intervened and in the meantime I went out by myself to where the children were. Paula was a woman of rare courage and totally fearless in situations that would frighten a hard person but, on that day, she had a bad feeling and was constantly worried. I tried to ask her to join me when I went to the children's place, but she refused to do so as she was convinced that the two of us should not be in one place at the same time. It felt right for reasons of security, so I left by myself with Paula alone in the house and we arranged to meet at four in the afternoon.

I went on my way full of foreboding and thinking about what was going to happen next, feeling sad and sorry for myself and on the way I went to a place where sledges were kept and hired one to take me to the children's place and then on to the railway station. When I reached my destination, I was still very agitated and while I was preparing the children for the trip, I waited for Paula to come. And, of course, outwardly when dealing with the people working in the pension and our housekeeper, I had to pretend I was calm and showed no fear, just like any person who would have nothing to worry about. In the meantime, the clock was ticking - it was four in the afternoon and Paula had not arrived.

The Gestapo arrives

A quarter of an hour passed, them half an hour and still no sign of Paula. I started to worry and as time went by my internal tension increased. Suddenly, I heard from afar the sound of bells announcing the arrival of the Troika (sleigh) that I hired previously. I stood by the window to see what was going on and felt better when I saw the horses galloping towards us but I did not think for a minute that Paula would not be in the vehicle. After a few minutes, the troika stopped by the pension and I was horrified to see that instead of Paula, three Gestapo men descended from it and made their way to the Pension. I found this a moment of destiny and told the children to leave and myself went into the toilet, opened the window and got out into the yard.

I ran across the yard and found myself in the street. I carried on running without looking back so as not to lose a minute As I reached the corner of the street, I stopped and got my breath back and then looked back. I saw that the troika was empty which meant the Gestapo were in the house and I thought that if Paula did not arrive till now, something must have kept her back and she may arrive straight into the fire. I felt I had to run towards her and warn her, but on the other hand, I had to look after the children and extricate them from this situation and bring them to a place of safety.

I stood there in anticipation to see if the children were in the house while looking out for Paula. But, in time, when the children did not arrive, I understood that they must have been involved in the Gestapo raid and that I had no way of saving them. So, I had only the second opportunity to save Paula, so I ran towards her house.

A solitary light in the dark

When I reached the house, I saw a Polish child who was the neighbour's son and asked him if he had seen Paula. He said that he had not, but that the Germans came and were in the house. His last words hit me like a giant anvil and I understood what had happened and why Paula did not come to the Pension and two of the children were missing. I did not know what to do and I thought that if my sister arrived at the station she would not find me there. And she will go to look for us in the place where the children were or to my place and as both those places were now unsafe, I decided to go to the station to warn her.

I turned around and went to the Troika place, hired one, and made my way to the railway station. On the way, I saw that the Gestapo was stopping people in the street and checking documents. Without wishing to draw attention to myself, I thought they were looking for me and I was terrified. The day was ending and the darkness made it easy for me to to conceal my anxiety from the coachman, although he noticed what was going on and commented on it from his point of view. He was now walking along the Troika as it was making its way up a hill and was talking to me about various things and at the railway station he remarked that the Germans are checking everybody's documents and he wondered why.

As a man who knew what was going on, he said, “I wonder if they are looking for Jews”. I had to respond to this and pretended to be surprised by saying “Jews? I thought they had all been taken out”. He immediately corrected me by telling me a story - “The Jews are clever, they know how to get around all kinds of problems and situations. Why, I have just been booked to go to a Pension to take three women and looks like the Gestapo was there before me. When I got there, it was all cancelled”. When I heard that, I was shaking from fear and wondered if what he said contained a hint for me.

Then I remembered that I had all the identity documents of the three of us on me and if I got caught, this will lead them to the source of all those documents where my uncle actually managed to obtain them as if from the fountain of salvation and helped him save so many people. I started to destroy the surplus documents which took quite a while and as we were approaching the Railway station I told the coachman that it was still early for my train and I wanted to get a bit more fresh air as the doctor ordered and asked him to go by a roundabout way. So we went for another round in the Troika and I left it before we got to the station.

I reached the station just in time. And, lucky for me, managed to escape the identity cards checks. I made my way to the ticket office and asked if the train from Warsaw had arrived and found out that it had arrived 1 minute before and will be going back to Warsaw in 10 minutes. I was looking for my sister amongst the people leaving the train but could not find her and felt desperate again and completely confused, I was at a loss as to what to do next. The events of the last few hours were going around in my head as a horror story - the Gestapo in the children's pension, and our own house, with Paula and here at the station, they seemed to be everywhere and there was no sign of my sister.

I did not know what to do next and so I made my way to the ticket counter in a confused state and asked for a ticket to Warsaw. And immediately changed my mind, then asked again, took the ticket and went on the train. After the train passed the first two stations, I remembered a certain address where I might seek refuge for the time being. While in Rebka, my sister met a young Pole on the train who identified her as a Jewess somehow. He approached her and whispered in her ear that he knows she was Jewish but she had nothing to worry about as he wanted to help her. To prove himself, he told her he was an underground fighter living on false papers, far away from his normal place of residence and since then we became good friends. This man and another friend of his, also an underground member, lived in a small town in an isolated house, far away from other people's prying eyes.

I left the train alone and headed towards the place where those two people lived but, as I did not know the full address and had never been there before I had to ask all kinds of people if they knew them. It was getting late and I carried on my way, which was dangerous because of the curfew that forbade us from being in the street at that time. According to what information I had, I was feeling my way in the right direction but was unsure, as it was dark. Suddenly I saw a single solitary light shining in the dark. It was the house I was looking for.

A hollow in the basement

They did not expect me, but they knew my sister was coming from Warsaw. I told them what happened in the last few hours and from what I said they realised that Paula was caught by the Germans and would probable be tortured and give away their address. There was no way round it, we were all done for, but I had to stay there at least for one night with all the dangers. They lived on a small farm with an old farmer and inside his yard was a very old, empty stable. I went into the stable and into a pile of straw with the two Poles standing guard all night. The next day they found me another hiding place in an attic of a villager who was friendly with them. A few days later, my sister arrived from Warsaw. When she came to see the two underground Poles, she found me there.

I then found out that things were not as I thought. My sister reached Rebka on the train as arranged but as I was late arriving in the station, I could not meet her. When she got off the train, she was expecting me at the station as arranged with my uncle. When she saw I was not there she assumed that something happened and ran to our hotel, but before she got there she realised that the Gestapo had been there and changed direction and went to the children's pension and what actually happened there was not what I expected. The Gestapo arrived on the troika, but they were not looking for the children or me, but for one other woman who also lived in that house. And they did not reach or bother the children at all.

As a result, my sister took the children to the railway station and caught the train to Warsaw where they were given away to be housed as arranged by my uncle. The children were safe and my sister was looking for me. We did not dwell at that place any longer and went straight to Otwock near Warsaw, where a hiding place was found for me with a Pole, for a large sum of money. The hiding place was a work of art - inside the basement, under a large house, was a large depression especially made for underground use and inside it were five people - one family of a husband his wife and a small child, my other uncle and myself. Our living conditions were difficult; the air was fetid and reached us through a pipe connected to the outside. There was no natural light, bar a single light bulb, which was on day and night. The ceiling was low and there was no room to stand up, but to sit or lie down only.

Living in the basement

The food at least was reasonable and sometimes better than that but, gradually it became less and less and our funds were running out. Leaving the basement, just for a breath of fresh air was like a pipedream, a distant goal, unobtainable and the height of luxury. From time to time, it was possible to leave the basement and go into the flat above but only if all the shutters were closed as if it was empty. Our landlord liked his drink and as the saying goes “when the wine goes in, the secrets come out”. He would talk freely when drunk and complain that he was afraid, as he could not see that what he was doing was the right thing and it would be better if we left.

One day he drank too much and when he came home he started running amok and shouting and wanted to go down to us and chase us away from the basement, but his wife prevented him by force from going down and ejecting us. We all heard the commotion and were terrified by the swearing and shouting going on above us. He eventually went to sleep and his granddaughter came down to us and told us that the family was suspicious of the owner of the house as when he was drunk, he mentioned us to other people. We were shocked, as we knew that it could have fatal consequences. And we decided to leave that place immediately.

This was another fateful turn in our fortunes as we sat in that basement for more than a year from 1943 to 1944 and somehow we managed to adjust to the situation in spite of the terrible conditions. This period was also marked by the ceaseless retreat of the Germans on all fronts and there was a glimmer of hope that if we could hold on for just a little bit longer, perhaps we could make it to the promised day when the Nazis would lose the war. But, alas, suddenly we had this blow and we were confronted again with the terrible reality.

The first part of our decision to run away from that place was easily reached. We had to be realistic as the other part of where we would go and how, was much more problematic. We had no way of knowing how to behave and what was going on outside. We decided to split up and myself, my uncle and another member of my family went towards Plenica while the others went in a different direction.

Return to Otwock

With darkness falling, we turned into the forest to continue using a hidden route; we carried on walking all night, as we wanted to cover as much distance as we could. By dawn, we only had a few more kilometres to cover, which we did by walking on minor roads until we reached our destination. We knocked on the door of our acquaintance from days gone by, but he turned us away in a firm way that left us in no doubt that he did not want to help us. By now, we were very hungry and begged him for some food, but he did not want to hear at first but than relented and gave us some bread and placed us in a stable. The next morning, he told us in very firm tone that he could not possibly keep us, as he had no hiding places for us and it was obvious to us that this time he meant it.

Having no choice, we had to retrace our steps and we reached the place we stayed in before where the drunken man was in charge. It was very late at night when we knocked on his window and he asked, “Who's there?” I gave my name and to our surprise he came out and was happy to see us. It transpired that when he woke from his drunken stupor, he regretted our departure and saw it as a personal failure and was afraid this will hurt him. All the arrangement he had in his basement was based on the underground anti-Nazi activities in the area and he thought the underground would take revenge on him if he kicked us out. He was also aware that he was making money out of hiding us and this reinforced his feeling of frustration thinking that he was the one that caused our departure. When he heard my voice through the window and saw me standing there, he immediately called us in and promised that we can now stay with him without any harm coming to us. In time, all the others who left with us also managed to reach us.

The liberation

With increased underground activity, following what was happening on the front, various emissaries started frequenting the house and we were enlisted for underground missions. One day, we were visited by a nun who was a messenger who became fond of me and told me “I must get you out of here”. Sure enough, in a few days, she returned for me and told me to come with her and to pretend to be a Polish woman, although, in my new hiding place, they knew I was Jewish. And so I came to the town of Piastow near Warsaw where I stayed with her relatives for two months. This was now early 1945 and at last, the Germans left the area, the Russians came, and with them, at last, the liberation.

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