by her brother, Mosze Szeps
Translated by Avi (Abraham) Stavsky
Fela, who was born in 1918, was the eldest daughter of Abram Jicchak and Chawa Szeps, a loc, was educated in a home environment which blended tradition and progressivism.
My father served in the Russian Army in his youth and had even achieved officer rank. However, this did not impede him from being an Alexander Hassid. My mother, Chawa, worked in WIZO, and was known as a modern woman, and among other things she was occupied with mutual aid. Our father was engaged in trade and traveled daily to Katowice.
As I was a few years younger than Fela, I will skip over her youth. I only remember her graduation day from her day school, when the parents were called to the school principal and to the instructor in order to personally receive the matriculation certificate. She was praised as being the best student in her class. And those who recall the atmosphere [which existed then] in Polish schools can appreciate this.
This was the time of Hitler's rise to power in Germany, and a character of anti-Semitism pervaded the Polish street. While a few of the [Jewish] youth remained in Dąbrowa for high school, most went to nearby Będzin and Sosnowiec to further their education. Fela too, continued her education at a trade school in Sosnowiec, but this didn't satisfy her, and she sought various courses and electives for advanced study.
During this time, Fela joined the service of Gordonia. She soon became very active in the organization.
During the late 1930s, she was chosen to head the Dąbrowa branch and handled the correspondence with the main leadership [office] in Warsaw. I remember some of the visits of the leadership to our house, in particular Jehoszua Rabinowicz and Eliezer Geler of blessed memory.
In 1938 Fela went on a Hachshara to Tomaszów Mazowiecki and there successfully obtained workplaces for her friends with Boleslaw Szeps, a local farmer who we later found out was related to my father.
With the outbreak of World War II, Fela returned home with the intention of packing her things in preparation for Aliyah to Palestine, but fate decreed otherwise. After the German occupation of our town, all youth organizations, (at least on the face of it), were ended; however Fela was involved with those that went underground. This expressed itself in meetings that took place in private homes, where Torah was taught to help lift the sagging morale among the Jews.
In 1941, Fela and my sister Bat-Szewa were caught and sent to a work camp in
Germany, where they were not separated until the day of her death. There,
according to my sister's diary, she and Bat-Szewa continued clandestine
cultural activities under miserable conditions in the concentration camp.
One of the more appalling things mentioned in Fela's diary was the letter she wrote to her younger brother, where she lauded his bravery and was saddened that he remained an orphan alone at home, though he remained an inspiration to his sisters groaning in the concentration camps.
[However] one thing was unknown to my sister Fela: that our brother grew up [literally] overnight and that he was proud to shoulder any kind of help to his sisters.
was blessed with literary talent.
In her diary she described her experience
in a women's concentration camp
To those who knew and worked with her, she was a spiritual giant even as she physically succumbed to the yokes of hunger and disease. She gave up her soul on the 9th of May, 1945, after the liberation of Volyně (Wolin) in Czechoslovakia. A small wooden plaque was placed on her grave by our sister Bat-Szewa. It bore an inscription from Fela's diary:
Dzień wolności był dla ciebie gorzkim odlotem.
Here I quote:
Letter to my dear brother. I am writing today because I miss you [so much]. I write even though I'm sure the letter will never reach you. I wanted to write in language in which I could speak freely. Mosze, everything that you send us become a factor in our destruction. Is this beyond your power? Can you not endeavor to have more control of what you send? Remember Mosze dear, you must try to survive everything and stay alive. Write to us and tell us what's possible for you [to do] in the near future, because that's the only thing that brings us joy in these desperate days of miserable tomorrows and an unknown future. We are really proud of your behavior and your work since the expulsion of our parents.
We just received your postcard. What a treasure it is for us! We never stop thinking of you even for a minute and at night sleep doesn't come to us. When I eat I think to myself whether you have enough food and whether our parents have what to eat. I am cold, and I think you too must suffer from the cold. Is it too difficult for you? Our dear parents probably never foresaw how well you care for us, and that you are so brave after what's happened to us.
Mosze, at times I wanted to commit suicide! I understand why you went to the camps and I wanted at any price to prevent this, as I wanted a male to remain at home and I didn't want you to long for freedom as I do.
Keep well, my brother, and accomplish [the moto]: Be strong and be brave!
Your faithful sister
and the one who died there, Fela Szeps
(By the witness, Szewa Szeps)
Translated by Avi (Avraham) Stavsky
I was born in Dąbrowa-Górnicza in 1924. My father had a tobacco shop. At the outbreak of the war, I had already studied for 16 months in the Fürstenberg Gymnasium [high school] in Będzin. Before the start of the war I was advised to go home to Dąbrowa. My sister Fela studied at Warsaw University.
The ghetto was first established in 1941. At home meanwhile nothing had changed. We were frightened and uncertain about what was to come. Until January 1941 I was at home with my parents and siblings. We already had to wear the armband with the Magen David [Star of David].
In the year 1942 the Jewish leadership [i.e. Judenrat] ordered all Jewish and industrious girls to register. After the registration we were allowed to go home. Later the Gestapo [came and] loaded us on to autos and for the last time in this world we saw the pale face of our father.
We were taken to Sosnowiec and a Durchgangslager [transit camp]. After about 10 days in this transit camp, me, my sister Fela and several other girls of about the same age were sent to the Grünberg/Schlesien camp in Silesia. We were the first transport to arrive there. We were a few hundred Jewish girls from Sosnowiec, Chrzanów and Będzin. Later women came from Hungary and Romania.
In the camp there was a weavers department. However my sister and I were assigned to work in the sewing department. The boss of the sewing department was a monstrous sadist who afflicted everyone. Thus my sister and I requested to be transferred to the weavers section. There we worked in 12-hour shifts. The weavers' work had to be production-quality and we were stable under the supervision of the overseer and foreman. We worked there until we were evacuated from that camp.
a gentle soul, recorded in her diary
the torture of women in the concentration camp
From time to time, a Gestapo woman would come along with a doctor, who performed selections. The girls were made to strip in front of him and he'd indicate with a finger whether she should continue working at our camp. Those who failed this inspection were removed and sent to an extermination camp.
At the camp were also French laborers with whom we were in contact. They provided us with political news.
Attempts to organize an underground operation in the camp were frustrated because of the camp senior [Jewish] prisoner, Ewa Messer. Her brutality stuck in our memories. She would beat us with a truncheon.
In February 1945, before the death march began, my sister became sick. We hid in a bread sack all the notes my sister wrote in the camp. During our time in the camp we made sure all her writing materials were well hidden, as we knew the value of such items [for the future]. We were sent on the March, some of the girls sick with a fever of 39 degrees. Every day the snow-covered roads became littered with corpses. My sister was in a very bad way. I had to support and pull her along, so that she would not be shot. We marched in the direction of Czechoslovakia and Bavaria. During the march my sister pleaded with me to leave her and continue alone. Frozen, starving and thoroughly exhausted, we managed to drag ourselves along. At night we were packed like herrings in barns or sheds. In the morning those who didn't survive were left behind. Our transport, with its skeletons in rags, caused the local residents in the area to close their windows and to run from us as if from an epidemic. Many of the unfortunate were [simply] shot along our way.
The Americans brought us to the local hospital. My sister was in a really bad way, and three days later, on the 9th of May, 1945, she died. She was buried in Volary. On her tombstone, I requested her epitaph be taken from her diary:
The day of our liberation should just not be a day of bitter sleep.
But I added:
The day of liberation, my dear sister, was for you a day of bitter sleep.
I remained in Volary for 6 weeks. The chaplaincy of the U.S. 5th Army Division
arranged for us to be sent to Salzburg.
Salzburg already had a D. P. camp, and there we found a list which said my brother was [alive and] in Bergen-Belsen. He came [over] to me and together we went to live in kibbutz Gersfeld, where we remained for half a year.
We arrived in Israel in 1946. I got married in Ashkelon. My husband is originally from Galicia, he served in the Israeli Army. We have a son and a daughter. My brother also married and lives in Haifa.
by Szewa Szeps
Translated by Avi (Abraham) Stavsky
I was born in Dąbrowa Górnicza in July, 1924. My father was in the cigarette [tobacco] trade. I had a family, a brother and sister, who are [now] in Israel and live in Haifa. We came to Israel together. My sister Fela, about whose fate I wish to tell in my testimony, died on the day of my liberation, when freedom was restored to me.
My childhood I remember as something distant and not memorable. I went to [grammar] school in Dąbrowa Górnicza and later, with my sister, to Fürstenberg high school in Będzin. I didn't manage to attend the Gymnasium [high school] for very long, about a year and a half, because the war in 1939 affected us in the midst of our studies.
My family lived at that time in Dąbrowa Górnicza. I stopped going to school, for the moment the Germans attacked, the school ceased to exist and all forms of training stopped.
The ghetto was created in 1941. At home as yet there were no changes. We sat insecurely and waited for coming events. Until June 1941, we lived fairly quietly. No unusual events [had yet] transpired. We wore badges with the Star of David, a racial identification which separated us from the population. Only in 1942 did the Dąbrowa Jewish Community issue an order that all daughters [i.e. women] involved in Arbeitschaft to be numbered. Following the numbering, we were no longer permitted to return home. Trucks from the Gestapo appeared hurriedly and in an eye blink we were herded into them. This was the last time we saw our parents, amid tears and shouts. My sister and I saw our father's pale face.
We were taken to Sosnowiec, to a transit camp (Durchgangslager). After ten days in the Sosnowiec transit camp, my sister Fela and myself and a bunch of other kidnapped girls, (most of us being of the same approximate ages) were moved to Grünberg/Schlesien in [the province of] Silesia. We were the first shipment of girls moved to this camp; several hundred more came from different areas: Sosnowiec, Czosnów, Będzin. Later on came others, from Hungary and Romania.
At the camp was a factory for weaving. My sister and I were introduced to a spinning mill. After a time working at the mill, we asked to be transferred to weaving, because the [spinning] director was a sadist with particular vehemence towards the working girls. We worked twelve hours a day. The work [we produced] had to be precise and perfect; we were constantly under the supervision of supervisors and work bosses.
We worked at this factory until the end, that is, until we were evacuated from the camp. Frequently the girls would gather together to talk. My sister Fela would bring these discussions to a more serious plane. Questions would pop up, answers [might be] proposed and some interesting arguments might ensue. We discussed topics of world history and sociology. Topics of advanced cultural study were thus created, and my sister was one of the leaders of such endeavors.
[But] we conducted these conversations secretly, as such discussion was strictly forbidden. We would generally gather on Sundays, when we were allowed some free time from work. But deliberately, during these [few] free days from work, we were approached with all kinds of miscellaneous tasks in order to bother us and keep us under pressure. We were teased, laughed at, and made to cut our hair. For not rendering quality [enough] work, our labor could be increased from 12 to 16 hours a day.
Our group that assembled Sundays was mostly made up of girls from Dąbrowa. This was typical of the mutual assistance and solidarity which was instilled in those groups which had [either] arrived together or worked together.
My sister Fela generally led these discussions herself and kept notes, as she
had no books or instructional aids.
The conversations among the women were lively and spirited. As my sister had been a student at Warsaw University (in the faculty of psychology), she had experience in the field of advanced studies. In truth, there were older girls among us, but she shone in the realm of higher learning.
Besides the more serious subjects, we managed to produce a humorous newspaper, [wherein we] wrote about movies and write some literary work. Each girl or group of girls was assigned a subject. We also sang and read emphatically. When the days of Chanukah or Purim approached, my sister directed the conversations towards those holidays. We even managed to perform plays, with the permission of the camp leaders, but these were not serious efforts.
With reference to the questions whether murders or similar acts by the Gestapo took place, or if there were any resistance or opposition movements [in the camp]: from time to time, a black automobile came around with Gestapo men and a doctor. They examined us and we had to parade before them completely naked. The doctor motioned with his finger who was [considered] fit to work. The person[s] considered unfit were sent away in the black vehicle to an extermination camp. It is difficult to fathom what occurred to us during these days.
At the factory also worked several dozen French laborers, and we each communicated with the other current political news.
Of underground activity there existed almost none. This was because of the betrayal by one of the [so-called] Judenältester, Ewa Messer. She constantly patrolled with a whip in her hand, beating the girls, chasing after them and quick to report the slightest infringement to the camp leadership. It was because of her that no secretive movement activity could take place.
As I mentioned previously, only cultural pursuits could take place, most of which my sister Fela led. Before the end of our time of confinement she fell ill. This was in February 1945, just before the death marches began.
In answer to the questions: did the Germans obstruct our cultural activities and what happened to the writings she left behind her? Did she try hiding them? In 1945 when the dead marches began, did you try taking along these journals?
The Germans paid no attention to our cultural activities, though we did them surreptitiously. She tried to hide her lists and some of them were obscured within her diary. Whatever we were able to hide, we did hide. We sewed together a bag wherein we secreted multiple pages, including portions of her lists. While we were still in the camp, Fela endeavored to hide pages in various locations.
In 1945 came the order to evacuate Grünberg/Schlesien. My sister left with us, although she was sick. She had a fever of 39 degrees. Bodies of the March victims littered the snow-covered road. Her situation was really bad and I had to support her [as we walked], or she would have been shot on the spot.
She had pneumonia but to the extent I can't explain or imagine. In this condition we were marched on the death march We headed in the direction of Czech Buchau (?) towards Bavaria.
My sister urged me to leave her and to try and save myself by escaping. We trudged along thus, frozen, starved and wet. At night we were crammed together like salted fish in a can. Dozens of young bodies remained the next morning after a night in such a can.
This picture of the march and the corpses along the road I shall not forget until my dying day. The windows of houses we passed were shuttered, their occupants secured within from the passing scourge and dogs barked.
Those the Germans did not manage to kill, perhaps from a lack of ammunition, were left in the forest of Wallern [Volary] in Czechoslovakia. One morning we awoke and found the German guards were gone. Me and another one, who had the strength left to stand on our legs, got up my sister could no longer do so and soon encountered an American tank.
The Americans deposited us in a local hospital. I was also placed there (according to a medical report from 16.7.1945, the Wallern [Volary] hospital doctors listed me as weighing 33 kilograms when I entered. I weighed 53 kilograms when I left). My sister was in a very bad condition, and three days later, died on the 9th of May, 1945.
We buried her in a cemetery in Wallern [Volary], and on her tombstone, wrote some lines from her journals: I wish that the day of our release does not turn into a bitter fate for us. I added: for you, my dear sister, our liberation day indeed had a bitter fate.
I remained in Wallern [Volary] about a month and a half, and then journeyed to Salzburg. The rabbis of the U. S. Fifth Army Division organized my trip to Salzburg. There, at a [D. P.] camp, I found a list of survivors and learned my brother was in Bergen-Belsen. I contacted him and he came to get me. We went together to a kibbutz at Gersfeld. My brother had been in a camp called Bunsla (?). I took Fela's journal with me and guarded it.
She knew the gravity of her condition and that she wouldn't recover but kept
the truth from me.
When she would cough [as in a spasm], she turned away from me, and I did not more pain to her suffering.
As I mentioned, my brother and I wee in kibbutz Gersfeld about half a year, until we immigrated to Palestine in 1946. At first I lived in Tel Aviv, and then moved to Ashkelon. Here I got married and have two children, a boy and a girl. My husband served in the IDF. My brother too, has a family, a girl and a boy. They live in Haifa.
I kept Fela's diary and have now given it to the Yad Vashem Archives, so that it will be considered and her memory will be forever kept.
Translated by Avi (Abraham) Stavsky
The Second World War and start of the German conquest impacted Szewa Szeps and her sister in Dąbrowa Górnicza. There they were born and educated. With the opening of the ghetto in 1941, they were found together with their parents and, siblings. Until 1942, they were employed in Arbeiterschaft. In January they were taken to a transit camp in Sosnowiec. After some ten days, they were further transported to a work camp in Grünberg/Schlesien, where a new weaving factory had been founded. In this weaving facility some 2,000 women were employed, most from Poland but partly from Hungary and Romania.
Within the confines of the camp, Szewa Szeps conducted cultural and educational activities. Being a graduate of the Gymnasium [high school] in Dąbrowa, and later as a student at the Faculty of Psychology at Warsaw University, she had considerable experience in cultural activities within Chalutzic organizations in the Zagłębie area.
Gifted with an unusual intelligence and a journalistic skill, she had an attribute that elicited an immediate sympathy from the group [of people] joined together in a similar fate.
The range of subjects [i.e. topics] she gathered for her lectures were wide, encompassing history, [and] sociology, as well as cultural and social issues. All this work she did from memory, as educational material was unavailable, while the entire [teaching] activity was illegal [from the German standpoint].
Besides the cultural doings, activities of amusement too, were organized. In this realm as well, Fela Szeps shone, organizing a living newspaper; prose; songs and even an attempt at theater, in which the girls tried out various parts, all of which was done in the [miniscule] free time allotted on Sundays. Mutual aid was greatly developed in the concentration camp, and there were no instances of treachery or betrayal.
During the whole time Fela was in the concentration camp she kept a diary, in which she described daily life there. This diary, portions of which were saved, tracked aspects of worry, pain, suffering and longing of girls separated from their families and friends, and enumerated their belief and hopes of better times and liberation.
The notebooks which contained portions of her diary were strictly hidden by Fela together with her sister, Szewa. In the winter of 1945, as the Germans began to evacuate the Grünberg/Schlesien camp, they marched the tired young and weakened girls along roads heavy with snow. Along this column of human misery way trudged also the two Szeps sisters. Among the papers secreted by Fela was her diary, her most precious possession which had been hidden through so much difficulty and now carried by her sister Szewa.
Desperately, Szewa attempted to aid her [sick] sister, who suffered from a pneumonia which developed aggressively and rapidly. On the 9th of May, scant days after their freedom by the American army, Fela Szeps died at the hospital in Wallern in the Czech areas. Her sister continued to keep and guard the diary. In 1946 she arrived in Israel, and in 1963, deposited the diary with Yad Vashemin Tel Aviv.
Fela Szeps' diary has an impressive value among the works written during and following the conflict. It is an example of the feelings and sensitivity among Jewish youth which was nonetheless able to flourish under difficult and drastic circumstances.
Given the unusual nature of the diary's contents, it was decided by Yad Vashem to translate to Hebrew and publish at least those portions of greater interest.
Yad Vashem has taken upon itself to collect and disseminate diaries
and journals written by Jewish youth during the time of the camps and publish
them. The diary of Fela Szeps is certainly prominent among these.
by Fela Szeps (Diary in the Labor Camp)
Translated by Dr. Hannah Berliner Fischthal
28 June 1942
I have completely lost hope a terrible loss of hope!
The summer is at its most gorgeous stage, and we hear nothing about an end to the abyss.
Everybody looks very badly everything is dragging on so long. Special changes did not take place, and nothing has changed in the meantime.
We are working a bit more, we get less to eat but that is not the worst of it.
Worse is the news from home about deportations, and the worst of all is loss of hope.
I am still alive because in the depths of my heart a spark of hope glows; maybe things will get better.
If it will still continue like this for another winter, half of us will surely die either naturally or by suicide.
One day I began talking, and I remembered having to depart from my home, and I sobbed.
By the conclusion of the day, the following events had occurred:
One girlfriend was badly beat up by a Kapo for sewing on her Jude patch poorly, and she fainted and fell down. I roused her and shared her pain.
One girl came to me crying, raised her hand high and said: It is already time for God to have mercy, and take us to him
This was a terrible day.
Our days are varied: today one faints, tomorrow another, and only a few look bearable.
*Yet I had to interrupt my writing.
Today is already Thursday, I wanted to finish something, I wanted to write something but will I get to do this today?
It is difficult to squeeze all changes and events into the boundaries of a page.
All measures are overflowing when will the end come?
We joyfully met the orders about darkening lights, not because this indicated a beginning of the end, but because it foretold bombardments that would lead us earlier to our deaths, which would free us from all humiliations.
The desire for death is not completely woven into our thoughts. If there were no obstacles, Death would get his victim every day
*28 February 1943
Today I want to write something that has value and leave it all as an inheritance for those who will be saved.
But how do I write it and where do I begin?
I reread again what I have written the last time in my diary. There I dumped all the curses in the world on the heads of my tormentors. I wished for them and their children, until the end of all their generations, that they should never know any peace, that they should throw themselves from one place to another, as though they were in hell.
But even that is not enough for them!
Is it possible to think up a punishment for them?
*Today is Sunday, a day free of labor, but not from pain. My sister lies near me and reads a story about a happy childhood and youth. She says to me:
*In the last week, 50 girls from a nearby village were brought to our camp.
Now we already make up 405 girls. The crowding is indescribable and we expect another transport. In K. not one Jew remains. The young ones were sent off to forced labor, parents and children deported to unknown places.
The same will no doubt occur in the entire Zagłębie region.
The girls arrived half dressed, barefoot and resigned.
The new pictures darkened our eyes, froze our blood and it seems to me that our hearts also are frozen forever.
*Two legged creatures live together and worry about vomiting hunger. A permanent negative wrangling and very often we are in the toilets
We labor hard without a stop and we do exact work for our oppressor. One wants to outdo the next person. Out of fear we subscribe willingly to work, even in our free Sunday days of rest.
Panic took over the girls as they felt a need to demonstrate their abilities. Some of them, out of their foolishness and maybe also because they dreamed that they would earn freedom because of this answered the call of the brutes, and signed up for special work in Germany. Some of them understood the foolishness of what they had done, but there was no way back.
I clearly understood what was happening. I could have explained this to everybody, but I did not, because I was ruled by an oppressive apathy, and my own pain gobbled up my heart. When I aroused myself, it was already too late.
Our girls do honest and exact work. Unwillingly, they help their own murderers.
Woe unto us slaves!
*Monday, 6 September 1943
Is this really true?
Joyous sounds are coursing through; I am afraid to believe them. Maybe they will also disappoint me? Will I soon be free and live like a person? Will I be able, without obstacles, to enjoy all of God's gifts?
I will wait no more for the murderer's Genod [mercy]!
I will walk freely, without supervision, and I will do whatever my heart will desire and go wherever I want: movies, theater, concerts, readings, trips and airline flights, like before, like before!
I will eat, drink, and take a bath whenever I want. I will no longer do forced labor.
I will no more sleep in the huge hall, filled with human complaints, woes, and with cellar mold.
I will have my own room with real windows, with curtains, small tables, and small chairs, and I will sleep on my bed. I will become human again!
Is that possible?
And maybe the hope will disappoint me further? I will leave G. and go home. To where? Home? To what home? Do I have a home? To whom will I go? Will I still see any of my near and dear ones?
A painful stab in the heart.
The sun had warmed me for a second and now it is dark and cold again.
To whom will I go and why do I now need freedom?
My thoughts darken.
I ask myself for the thousandth time: how will my so desired freedom look?
I don't have the courage to kill myself, because an inner force screams, Life! Life!
However, I cannot imagine my life without the longed for future, without my nearest ones. I do not have the audacity to think about that I cannot.
*Friday, 31 December 1943
Today we have a holiday. The last evening of an unhappy year. What will you bring us, year 1944? What surprises are you preparing? Can you still scare us with anything?
We have become so wise, experienced, and old! I am frightened that the coming year will certainly bring the armistice and freedom. All of that will be too late for us: we are resigned, and our health destroyed.
Many lie in the barracks with lung disease. Two are dying in the isolation room, and entrance is strongly prohibited. Their souls will surely fly up in gray loneliness.
Last week two men died of tuberculosis. The same fate awaits every one of us, if we will remain under the present conditions.
*Today we went though a lung x-ray, and the number of sick doubled.
The word is going around that soon all the sick will be deported.
I have decided, in case the x-ray will show that I also am sick, to kill myself. Not all are ambitious enough to perform the bold deed, like Dorke W., who ran away.
*The ordeal is almost at an end.
I strongly desire, that I will not have more to write.
Should I once and for all end everything? An emptiness has conquered us and drives away every speck of hope or faith.
*Freedom is unattainable for us it is definitely not for us.
We cannot even imagine what a normal, free life looks like.
After such a long age of slavery, humiliation and bestiality, it is difficult to believe that we will ever be free people again.
Our faces, our minds have become crippled.
More than once I look in my little mirror and I have the impression that Fela Szeps is somebody else: yes and no: Fela Szeps?
My head swindles maybe I have lost my reason? I look at myself: My childishly small face shrunken, oy, like an old, pointy visage.
And so are all the women transformed into caricatures.
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