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[Page 29]

Odyssey of a Jewish Girl

Bella Bronstein (Haifa)

(This is the story of one brave Jewish girl during the horrible years of World War II in Poland. Although told in Yiddish in the third person, the editors took the liberty to retell it in English in the first person, without diminishing thereby the authenticity of the original).

I was the oldest of four children in our family and the only one that survived the holocaust. Mother died when I was still a child, and I was sent to live with my aunt in Drohichin.

Father was killed in 1939, at the very beginning of the war and I was left homeless and alone. One of my little sisters was put in the orphanage of the famous Dr. Yanush Korchak (who went together with his charges to the death train); the other perished later in the Warsaw ghetto.

When the Germans seized Warsaw I was one of the many homeless children roaming the streets of the war-ridden city. A few times I managed to bring some food to Jews stranded in a Jewish school on Torgova street of the Praha suburb. One day, on my way to that place I met a Polish woman named Christian who knew me. She pleaded with me to come and live with her for she knew that "bad times are coming for us Jews." I let myself be persuaded and went to live with that Polish woman. My conscience bothered me, for I didn't tell anyone of my relations where I was going; but I suppose I acted like most people in those terrible days desperately struggling to save their lives, as best they could...

The woman was right. Harsh and dark times came for all Jews. First they were drafted to do the hardest and most degrading jobs; then they were exiled and tormented to death. I was now under the roof of a Christian family and for reasons of caution and security was ordered to wear a large cross on my chest. Later I was transferred to the home of Christina's sister who lived in a little village about 14 kilometers outside of the city. There were no children in the family, and I was accepted very cordially. I was told that this house could be my home for the duration provided that no one would know that I was Jewish. That is why I was promptly initiated into all Christian customs and prayers. I also had to go church.

This, however, did not last very long. Only a week later, when the entire countryside was already covered with snow and the house was shrouded in darkness while I was in my deepest slumber after a day of hard work the master of the house came over to my bed and awakened me. He told me that I must leave the house immediately, for it appeared that people in the village suspected my being Jewish.

"I suppose that if you leave right away," he said, "you may be far from here before sunrise. Go, my child, and may God protect you on your way."

I dressed as quickly as possible and with a beating heart and tears in my eyes I was out in the cold not knowing where I was going.

I knew that all the roads were shut for Jews. I didn't know my destination. Only one thing was clear, I wanted to live. Looking at the huge cross on my neck, I lifted my eyes to heaven as if in prayer: "Save me, God, from death; Forgive me that I bear this cross. I want to live, if only for one day of revenge."

Wandering all night, I came to a little grove and there I lay to rest. I suppose I fell asleep for when I opened my eyes I was on a wagon. I shouted: "Jesus, Maria", what's happened to me? where am I?" Near me on the wagon there were two peasants who calmed me, saying: "Don't be afraid little girl, we mean no harm to you. Here you could have frozen to death, and a young child like you should go on living. We shall bring you to a safe place."

I was quite sure now that they would hand me over to the German exterminators. But I was mistaken. Instead of being delivered to the Germans I was brought to their home. The woman of the house was glad to take me in although it was quite clear to her that I was Jewish.

One morning, when the whole family was seated at the breakfast table, a German patrol entered the farm-house. "We are looking for Juden", they announced emphatically. "Are there any here?"

"What Jews?" replied the master of the house. "Where can you find any Jews now?" "This young lady here looks like a Jewess," said one, pointing at me.

I was scared to death; but the clever peasant-woman did not loose her wits. She invited the soldiers for breakfast and a good strong drink of vodka. Then she gave them plenty to eat, so that they forgot all about me. Meanwhile I had a chance to slip out of the house and so escape a certain death. Since I could not get away very far I decided to hide in the barns of neighboring farmers.

When night came I was again on the road, but I was already exhausted and had neither the will nor the courage to go on. But I knew I must continue. Again, I came to a little clearing - the woods, where shepherds tended their flocks. They asked me where I was going so early in the morning and I made up a long story about a visit to my grandmother and they believed me. Then I noticed a large cross by the wayside and stopped by, as if to pray, so that people passing should take me for a devout Christian girl. I remained seated by the cross crying, when an old elegant lady passed by.

"What are you praying for so devoutly, my child?" asked the lady.

I told here that I had no home to go back to, after the Germans burnt our house and killed my father.

"Aren't you Jewish?" asked the lady.

"No, madam" I replied immediately. "Are the Germans killing only Jews? Don't they kill many of ours as well?"

She apparently believed me and invited me to come to her house. For some time both of us were happy and satisfied. But this asylum was not for very long. Only a few days later one of her neighbors came in to inquire about the newcomer and reminded her how dangerous it was to give shelter to strangers. All such persons must be reported at once.

Overhearing this conversation, I dressed quickly, thanked the lady for her hospitality and good intentions, assuring her that I was less afraid of the Germans than she or her neighbors were.

Again I was on the march, for days and nights without food or shelter. My face and fingers were now frostbitten. I was so desperate that at times I even felt like going over to the nearest German patrol-post, tell them who I was and be done with it. But the strong will to stay alive and the hope to survive the horrors of war kept me going.

I came by a Catholic church, and sat down to rest a while chanting a holy Christian hymn. An old man came out of a little house and invited me in. I accepted the invitation willingly. The old man was the warden of the church. After he gave me some warm food in his cozy little room I asked him if I could find employment around the place. He suggested that we go in to see the priest who might take me in as help to his housekeeper. It turned out later that the priest's housekeeper was also a refuge Jewish woman who was not too anxious to have another Jewess around... (not unusual in those terrible days).

The priest however, was glad to help a child in distress and sent me to one of his rich parishioners, with a recommendation. I was accepted and was again rechristened Antonina. My new patroness was the wife of a rich farmer. She offered me the job in the cow barn and sheepshed, in which they had over eighty heads. I was too timid and scared to refuse the job although I knew that it was really too hard for a girl. I was willing to try and so I remained in the service of this family.

The churchwarden left me there, and I again felt at home with good people. At night I heard them talk about the horrible situation and how the poor Jews were being exterminated. Plucking up courage I asked the old wife of the farmer if she too was of Jewish descent. "I am not Jewish", said the woman, "but my mother was. She still lives with us and is now about 90 years old. It's lucky that the Germans don't know about this. Otherwise we would all be dead by now." My heart was filled with joy. Maybe now, I thought, would be an end to my wanderings.

The rainy season began. Every day I had to take the sheep to pasture, and I returned soaking wet. Yet I didn't mind the cold or the discomfort of my wet clothes. I was determined to go on; until one day I caught cold, and got sick; but I was afraid to tell anyone how miserably sick I was. However, my kind mistress noticed how I suffered, and when she measured my fever it was above 40 degrees C. The doctor came and I was ordered immediately to the hospital. Now it was a struggle for life and all my thoughts were how to get well again.

One night I dreamt that my mother came to me and said that soon I would get well; I should then try to get away from this hospital as far as possible. The priest also came to visit me. All the nurses took an interest in me, but I avoided all their questions about my past. I was afraid I might be discovered. During my recuperation period, I got acquainted with a nurse named Sophia. This nurse suggested that I should not go back to the farm. Instead she offered me a place with her sister who needed help with her little ones. I was considering the change but dared not tell my former patrons, who were very good to me. When I was well again I decided to leave the hospital under cover of darkness. In order to reach the village where the nurse's family lived I had to walk all night. I was determined to brave the fears and terrors of the road to the village and got there early in the morning. As I sat down to rest on a stone by the wayside two peasants came by me. I asked them to show me the house of the family I was going to. They pointed out the house and went away. Sophia's sister received me gladly and offered me her home. I kissed her hand and immediately began to attend to the two little girls, who soon took a liking to me. They never asked me who I was and where I came from. Evidently, the letter I brought from Sophia explained everything.

Once I was so exhausted from work in the field that I fell asleep on the spot. I was brought home to rest, and was not even scolded. I felt happy in my new home, and even attended religious services with all the other children of the village. Once when I came to church I noticed that I was being pointed at. I thought that again I was recognized as being Jewish. So after the services I slowly slipped out into the street and was again on the road, feeling once more the gaze of hostile eyes on me. As I was walking along I found myself - before a group of German policemen, two of which turned out to be Polish. I thought that the best thing would be to go on walking calmly and briskly. But then I heard one of them calling me to stop. They said "Gut Morgen" rather politely and walked away. One of them, however, remained behind. Now, I thought, is the crucial moment. It turned out that this was a young Polish policeman whose name was Solick. He was a native of Drohichin and recognized me.

"You are Jewish, aren't you? Your uncle's name was Sholem. I know all about you. Let me see your identity card." Trembling I handed him the card with the name of Antonina Bijalska Again he looked at me and said: "You are not telling the truth, but I shan't do you any evil. You better clear out of here, for somebody else might recognize you. Then, you shall be among all the other dead of your people." He let me go but wrote down the place where I lived.

Again I was facing danger. I didn't sleep all night, planning how to find safety elsewhere. I did not run away the next morning for I was hoping that the war would end soon. So a few months passed and it was already the eve of Passover, the season when good Catholic Christians go to church to confess their sins. I, too, went to the "father confessor" with the other children of the village.

On the way to church the children were discussing how and what to confess and made fun of the whole thing. Wanting to be part of the conversation, I decided to say something positive and affirmative. So I said that we must perform the duties of our religion, and urged hem to hurry lest we be late. I was glad to be last to remain in the church after everybody had already gone and made as if I was praying devotedly. I drew the attention of a fine middle-aged lady who came over to me and asked why I had remained in the empty church so late. I took the opportunity to tell the lady about my sad lot. I told her how difficult it was for me to stay with the family I was living, and expressed the wish to find work with some other family, attending to children or taking care of an old woman. She immediately offered to take me with her as she had two children and an old mother.

I couldn't believe my ears, but here I was already walking by the side of my new benefactress. As we were walking the distance of about 3 kilometers from church to her home, the woman told me how her Jewish neighbors were taken out to be killed. I listened to her story of horror but made no reply.

When we came into the house, I met the old lady her mother. I bowed, kissed her hand and greeted her in the manner that good Polish Christian children do. Her reply was also cordial and traditional, but I noticed tears in her eyes and a benevolent smile on her face. Later, when all left for the fields and I was left alone with the old lady and the two children I again felt at home hoping that now I would resume a normal life as a refugee Christian girl under the name of Antonina Bujalska. The old lady took a liking to me and told me her own story. It appeared that she too, was Jewish, but eloped with her Polish lover when she was only 16 and never returned to her family. Now she would recall her old father who never recovered from the shock of his daughter's conversion, while her old mother perished in the Warsaw ghetto.

Hearing her mention Warsaw, I burst out crying. The old lady then told me that she knew right away I was Jewish by my appearance and gentle manners. Our conversation was interrupted by the return of the family for dinner.

One day a German agricultural officer, who was in charge of grain collection and butter and egg production for delivery to the government, came by. He had a strong hunch that I was Jewish, but Maria, my patroness, did not loose her wits and firmly denied that I was Jewish, on the ground that all Jews were already exterminated. Her denials were corroborated with a full glass of vodka and a spicy bite. Everyone around was astonished, so was the German. Later he even excused himself for being so rude. I also kept calm outwardly but I saw how again I missed being taken away.

I remained with this family for several months, and everything appeared normal for nobody but the old grandmother knew that I was Jewish.

One sunny Sunday morning I was in he fields with the children of my adopted family and I felt fine. The children wanted me to sing for them, so I began a church hymn I knew well. Just then I heard the voice of the local priest who remembered me from the time I was in the hospital. He was glad to see me again and said: "Good morning, Antonina... what are you doing in my parish?" I answered that I was already a year with the Timinsky family and was fine and happy. Complimented me on my singing he invited me to come and sing in his church choir. Without waiting for a reply he handed me some money to buy myself some decent clothes before I come to church.

I was in a real predicament. To appear in a church choir before many people where somebody might recognize me was dangerous. But it was equally dangerous not to accept the priest's invitation. I was also afraid to tell my patroness. So I decided to seek the advice of the old grandmother. I came to her room when everybody in the house was already asleep kissed her hand and sought her opinion in regard to the priest's invitation. The wise old woman listened carefully and advised me to accept the offer; buy new shoes, dress nicely and join the choir. She was sure my outward appearance could never betray my being Jewish.

Next morning I did exactly as the wise old lady told me to do. I washed and dressed neatly and went to the priest's house. From there I was taken by the priest's housekeeper (who was also Jewish) to buy the right sort of clothes for a good Christian choir girl. We bought a pair of sandals, a beret, and a nice blue knitted skirt. When I was all dressed, Wanda (that was the housekeepers' name) slyly remarked that now I really look like a "Jiduvka" (a Jewish girl) ...

I was really frightened, but soon Wanda calmed me by saying that nowadays anyone who looked gentle and cultured is suspected as Jewish... We both knew the truth about each other, but acted as if we didn't, and so parted, to our respective non-Jewish "homes."

I was nervous and impatient, during the last days of the week, thinking how it would be on Sunday morning - my hour of trial. At nine o'clock, when I heard the church bells ringing I was ready but jittery. I only plucked up courage when grandma, my old friend, wished me good luck saying:

. . . "Sing well. Think of me when you stand before the public, and have no fears".

So I did. Standing there among the other girls in the choir, I felt the priest's approving look, and saw the old man's lips whispering: "Dobje" (Polish: well done!)

My first appearance was successful. The next time it was easier. They got used to me and no one seemed to question my origin. I was well liked in the village and at times I was even permitted to substitute my master on night watch duty with the other villagers. No one suspected my Jewishness. Yet, I was often tormented by the thought of being the only Jewess left in the world.

So the days and months passed. There was but one man who made trouble in our house: grandma's son-in-law. He was a rabid anti-semite who loved to torment her and me with nasty remarks and popular anti-Jewish songs, like the one that made fun of Jewish girls, who ran away with their gentile lovers... ("Moia Rebbeca z'domu utsekla" - My Rebecca ran away from home ! )

Once the old lady was so angered by her tormenting son-in law, that she lost patience scolding him thus: "Why do you torment people? Look at this girl, Marusia! she is Jewish, too, and suffered much. Must you always remind her of Jews?"

The reply was even more cruel: "I may surprise you both", he said, "for I enjoy handing over Jews to the German Gestapo; they will know what to do with you!"

There and then I thought I'd die of fear. At first, we thought he was drunk but then I knew that he meant what he said, and I suddenly realized that I was again in real danger. I had to plan my next step.

A few days later, when I had to do my morning milking, I packed some of my clothes, put it into a milk-pail, as if I were going to the barn and from there began my rapid march, away from the village. I could still hear someone calling me back: "Where are you? What happened? What will we do without you?” but I was already far away, determined not to return.

Completely exhausted and hungry, I came after four days and nights of roaming the fields, to a little peasant hut. A door opened before me and I was greeted with a cordial polish "Djen Dobrie" (good morning). I saw before me an old couple asking me what I was looking for. I told them I was looking for work, any kind of work if I could only stay a while. They asked if I were Jewish? I said there were no more Jews around. They hesitated but took me in.

I knew right away that my stay with them would not last long, but I remained, and was of some use to them around the house and in their little garden.

One night I overheard their conversation about my being Jewish. The old lady said that she didn't mind, but the old man was afraid of the German patrols. This was a sign for me, to get going. I dressed very quietly and went out. It was just beginning to dawn, and peasants were already on their way to the fields.

I noticed a little girl carrying two pails of water from the river. I helped her carry them and so came with her to - the house. The parents were grateful and invited me to stay. I offered my services and asked for nothing more than board and room, telling them the same story that I had no home or family. They agreed to take me on as a farm worker for the summer. Meanwhile I began with cooking and attending to the children, for I was determined to prove myself useful and stay put with them to the end of the war. I didn't even mind the hints and remarks that my cooking tasted Jewish. I was sick of wandering around and was ready to put up with all unpleasant things.

I was well liked by he family, which included also two boys who served with the German armed forces and would come on leave in uniforms of the Gestapo. At first, I was quite scared of them and avoided all contact with them as collaborators with the murderers of my people, but they were rather nice and friendly to me. They even invited me to go out with them to dances in the casino and didn't dare to refuse.

One of the boys, Edward, even declared himself in love with me and offered to marry me after the war. He confessed that he hated the Germans and that he was in their service against his will. (It appeared later that he was sincere and even made efforts to find me after the war in Bialistok). After my meeting with Edward, however, I was afraid that someone may, after all, hand me over to the Gestapo, although I had with me a document issued by the Germans that I was of Polish nationality and that my name was Antonina Bialiska.

One evening in May, when the boys were again on leave, there was a little party in our house when a German patrol passed by to verify a report that there was a Jewish girl around. Just then I was busy doing my daily chores in the sheep shed. The old farmer locked all the doors, and I could hear the German shouting: "Where is that little girl we saw around here?" Obviously, they meant me. One of them pulled the door of the shed and saw me. I was quite scared. But they only looked at me and greeted me politely. I did my best to remain calm and busy.

The soldiers seemed impressed by my calmness and even reprimanded the old farmer for shutting me up at work. He said he didn't know I was inside and the soldiers said good-by politely.

Once again I felt that I escaped deportation, as if by miracle.

This time I decided to do something drastic! I was prepared to volunteer with other Polish girls for work in Germany.

A few weeks afterwards, when I was on my way to deliver the milk we had to hand over to the government controls, a Polish woman whose only daughter was to be drafted for such labor, offered to give me a good reward of money and documents if I were ready to go in her daughter's place. I accepted the offer, without informing my adopted family. The woman provided me with food and money but didn't bring the promised documents.

Without the necessary documents I was again suspected of not being Polish, but as the train was about to leave, my inquirers didn't make much fuss. One of them just slapped my face so hard that he broke three of my front teeth. I was pushed into the full train together with some 800 other girls and I was on my way again. It was an awful journey that lasted for several days. Finally, we arrived at Konigsberg where we were assigned to all sorts of jobs. I was taken to work in a large restaurant and coffee house. I did my work very diligently and did not associate with any of the other 60 employees. I didn't have to stay there very long, for it was already toward the end of hostilities. It didn't take very long before the advancing Russians came into the city and the war was at an end.

* * *

I survived the Holocaust all alone. My entire family perished together with the six millions of our nation. I escaped their lot by mere miracles, ever conscious of my sacred duty to tell the tragic story and remind the remnant of our people that they are duty bound to avenge the blood of our innocent martyrs.

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