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Chapter IX

Pan Kapitan Continues

 

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Batia Akselrad in 1946 in France

 

Batia Akselrad was another resident at the Zabrze orphanage. She has graciously written her life story in Hebrew for us. Batia recently passed away.

I, Batia Eisenstein–Akselrad, was born on May 5, 1932, in Krosno, Galicia, Poland. My parents were Bendet Akselrad and Cila (nee Freifeld) Akselrad. I had five older brothers. I was the sheltered baby of the family and their worries about my well being greatly increased with the German occupation of the town. The Jewish economic situation in Krosno went from bad to worse with each day. My parents decided to seek shelter for me with a non–Jewish family named Krukierek. Our family was well acquainted with this family whose sons worked at our sawmill in Krosno. The family responded positively to the inquiries.

My mother packed a suitcase of clothing and I packed a small suitcase of items that were dear to me. I took some notebooks, pencils, coloring pencils and some other knickknacks. One evening, my brother, Shalom, took me to my new family. I cried all the way while my brother talked to me about behaving nicely to the family members and to be obedient and respectful. The separation was very difficult and painful. My brother tried his best at soothing my feelings by stating that the family would always be in touch and visit me at the new home. As to my question about why I had to leave the house, there was no immediate answer. Shalom merely said that the family selected a nice and safe place for me where I would be treated as a member of the family. His words gave me some confidence and I ceased crying. We then entered the new home and I was greeted warmly.

 

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Bendet Akselrad

 

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Cila Freifeld–Akselrad

 

My father, Bendet Akselrad, was head of the Jewish communities of Korczyna and Krosno, Galicia, Poland. He was married to Cila Freifeld and they had five sons and a daughter. My oldest brother was Shmuel who was born in 1909 and married to Klara Rosenberg from Debice. They had a daughter named Irenka, born in 1935. My second brother was Shalom, born in 1911. The third brother, Avraham, was born in 1922. The fourth brother was Yehuda, born in 1924, and the fifth brother was Levy, born in 1930. I, Batia Akselrad, was born May 24, 1932.

I will try to describe the family as far as my memories permit. I was a youngster at the time. The family revolved about my father who was devoted to the community. He was a gentle person who had a great deal of patience and listened to everybody who came to the house with a problem and the Jews of Krosno and Korczyna had many problems, mainly survival problems, in a sea of anti–Semitism.

As a child I loved the Jewish holidays of Purim, Passover and Friday nights. My father always brought home dinner guests from the synagogue that joined us at the table and shared our meals. Dinners were always interlaced with conversations and discussions. To this day, people who knew my father praise him for his patience, understanding and assistance in solving problems. These people describe to me in great detail his deeds that were unknown to me. These comments make me feel proud of my parents and family.

They also helped me to better understand my father since the people in question dealt with him personally while I was a mere child on the sidelines. Many influential Polish gentiles visited our home and discussed ways and means to avoid or smooth over, sore spots within the Krosno community among Jews and Christians. The Polish population was very anti–Semitic and the slightest incident could turn into a major riot or a pogrom as often happened in the country. The Jews wanted to avoid confrontations at any cost and merely desired to continue with their life that was very difficult, for they faced discrimination at every step of the way. Even gifted Jewish youth could only dream about positions or jobs in governmental or public offices. Anti–Semitism was deeply embedded among the Polish population and was even transferred from generation to generation with only minor changes.

Father devoted most of his time to the community and considered this task to be his “raison d'etre” or essence of life. He left his various businesses in Krosno to his older sons while he devoted himself to the needs of the Jewish population. The oldest sons Shmuel and Shalom graduated from the school of commerce and administration and managed the various family businesses. Bendet Akselrad was also a graduate of this school. Schooling was very limited to Jews and some trades or professions were closed to Jewish students and in some instances a few Jewish students were admitted as a token of Jewish presence. Mother also helped my father since she received the people who came to the house while father was not at home. She spoke to the visitors and made notations that were relayed to father on his arrival. My brother and I also had important jobs for we ran to open the door whenever the bell rang. Many of the family discussions revolved around the impending war and my parents and older brothers were very perturbed by the news events of the day. I was terrified and expected the worst, especially when I heard the screeching of Hitler on the radio. I had bad feelings but did not really understand what was happening.

The Polish–German war started in September, 1939 and my brother Shalom was immediately drafted at night and I was unable to say goodbye to him. Time passed and we heard nothing from Shalom. Then a Pole came to our house and told the family that my brother was seriously injured in his legs and was treated at a hospital in Stanislawow, Eastern Galicia. Of course, he received a nice reward for the information. Father took Avraham and Yehuda with him and they left the house in the direction of the city where Shalom was supposedly convalescing. He left the community affairs in the hands of Shmuel, his oldest son. They soon arrived to Stanislawow and discovered the hoax. Shalom Akselrad was not in the city. But they did meet many Jews from Krosno who had fled to this area prior to the arrival of the Germans. The Akselrads decided to return home but Soviet forces now occupied Stanislawow as part of the partition of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union. It took some doing and they managed to reach Krosno. Here a postal card awaited him from his son Shalom who was a prisoner of war in a German camp. Shalom continued to send post cards and in one of them he informed us that he would soon be sent home. Our joy was boundless. Father was very busy with the community and was assisted by his elder sons. The city of Krosno had received many Jewish refugees from many places who needed help and temporary lodgings. The Jewish economic situation in the city was very bad, for many Jewish businesses were confiscated and Jews were not permitted to circulate freely in the city. The situation worsened with each day; a white armband with a Star of David had to be worn, anti–Jewish rules and new regulations appeared daily. The situation assumed alarming proportions and my father and brothers barely coped with the situation. They tried to help with whatever they could and the Jews needed all the help that they could get. The fact that father and my brothers spoke German fluently – since the family had lived for many years in Vienna and had Austrian citizenship – gave them the ability to use the language to help the Jews of Krosno.

The Germans refused to deal with Jews and especially those who did not speak German. Every demand had to be written and submitted to the Germans in their language. The Akselrads were busy drafting and writing all kinds of requests for the Jews of Krosno. They also had to follow up these requests and I saw my father's face when he returned with a negative answer. Although I was small, I began to hear strange and meaningless but frightening words like concentration camps, ghetto, searches and Gestapo. I did not understand these words but feared them for they were uttered in fright. I began to mature rapidly as children do in such special circumstances.

One evening father came home and I saw the sadness in his eyes. Mother told me that they wanted to talk to me privately. Father told me that he had found a special place for me with a fine Polish family that wanted to take me to their house. He told me that they would like me very much. I listened seriously but did not really understand what was taking place. Mother packed a bag with clothing. The next evening, my brother Shalom took me to the Krukierek family. During the walk he explained to me how to behave in the new home and to be a good and obedient girl. He instructed me to listen and fulfill all the commands of the new family. He also told me that I now have a new name that I must use. Furthermore, he said, you must not cry or ask to return home. We shall visit you when we can. Parting was very sad; I saw the tears in my brother's eyes and I barely restrained myself from crying. Still, we parted sadly and I entered the new home.

I saw a grandmother, a grandfather and a young couple. Of course, I was very sad since I was left alone when my brother left. The new family named me Basia (a typical Polish Christian name), as opposed to my name Batia. I cried the entire first night and was unable to fall asleep. I had a hard time adjusting to the idea that I was left alone with a new and strange family. No longer would I be able to rejoin my dear and beloved family. I rose early in the morning and went to the yard. I approached the gate and looked at the path that we used the previous night, but nobody was in sight.

I stood there and cried, hoping to see a familiar face, but no one appeared. I continued to stand or sit there for hours each day in the hope of seeing someone from the family, but in vain. I was depressed and entered the home only when grandfather called me to eat but I had no appetite. Grandmother understood the situation and tried to alleviate my fears by saying that my old family would probably visit me during the day or tomorrow. This of course did not alleviate my depressed feelings but it showed me that someone cared. Needless to say, I was very happy when a member of the family visited and brought a gift from the old home. They always promised to visit me as often as they could to cheer me up, for they saw my red and swollen eyes. They tried to visit often and indeed everybody visited me except my brother Awraham. He went to buy bread and disappeared. The visits always ended in sadness, for I was left alone with my depressed feelings.

My parents and my brothers occasionally visited me except for Avraham. The family visits continued and then suddenly they stopped. My mother Cila Akselrad was caught and shot in 1943 in Korczyna. My father Bendet Akselrad was shot on July 15, 1943, in the concentration camp of Szebnie. My brother Shmuel, his wife Clara, their daughter Irenka, and Shalom Akselrad were caught in Warsaw with false Aryan papers and killed. Avraham Akselrad survived the concentration camps and managed to reach New York where he passed away in 1991 after a lengthy illness. He never established a family. My brother Yehuda Akselrad joined the partisans and fought with them until 1943 when he was killed in the vicinity of Warsaw. My brother Levi was killed in Krosno in 1943. Thus, I was the sole survivor of the family in Krosno and lived with the Polish family.

I missed my parents and brothers and kept dreaming about them. I saw them almost every night in my dreams and was very happy, only to awaken to the bitter reality that I was alone. I was very sad since I wanted the dream to continue, but to no avail. I remained in the house with grandfather and grandmother while the couple went to work. I helped in the house with everything that I could since I tried to please everybody in the family. I was always afraid that I might be kicked out of the house. This fear lingered on and frequently prevented me from sleeping. I slowly became attached to the new family and became more familiar with them. They worried about me and were constantly fearful that an informer might reveal my existence to the Germans. The home of the new family was located in a rural area in the vicinity of the airport of Krosno. Still there was fear that someone might spot this young girl in the courtyard. The Krukierek family decided that the risks of being exposed were serious and took the necessary steps. They began to shift my hiding places. Sometimes I slept hidden in a straw bed in the attic. Others times I was hidden in dark places that affected my vision on seeing light.

On nice evenings, I would emerge and play a bit in the wheat field. Some evenings, grandmother would give me a basket and send me to pick potatoes. I dug the potatoes by hand in the dark so that no one would see me. I picked the big ones and left the small ones in the ground so that they would continue to grow, as grandmother Veronika instructed me to do. I would return with a basket full of potatoes and then clean them before entering the kitchen. Grandfather was pleased with the work and would always say that I earned my keep for the day and would give me an extra heavy slice of bread. I was very proud of my achievements and accepted wholeheartedly these compliments.

Grandfather was rather economical with his compliments; thus I relished them when I received one. Potatoes and cabbage was the standard food of the day for the family. Sunday was a special menu that consisted of potatoes, cabbage and rabbit meat. The latter were raised on the farm next to the cows and roosters. At night I picked potatoes and during the day I tended to the daily house chores. I always volunteered to do extra chores in order to ingratiate myself with the family. The fear of being rejected was always on my mind. I spent a great deal of time peeling potatoes and when I did a good job, I received a slice of bread. I did all the chores with devotion for I craved attention. I wanted to be accepted. Thus, I was very busy in the house, for grandfather had a leg injury and limped, while grandmother was weak and tired easily.

In addition to the regular house chores, I also mended clothing, helped prepare the feed for the cows and did many other kinds of work in the house. Of course, there was less work during the winter when the fields were covered with snow and I spent my time in hiding in the cowshed. The weather was freezing. I spent my time talking to the rabbits and roosters. It seemed to me that they answered but I was not sure if I heard them. I was very lonely and continued to talk to the small animals for I had no friends.

This was a difficult period, for the Germans increased the intensity of their searches and my adopted family was seriously frightened by the new policy. They even considered throwing me out of the place. I was terrified and could not fall asleep for fear of winding up in the street. Grandmother cared a great deal for me and stated that she would assume full responsibility for my protection. Furthermore, she stated that she would leave the house if I were thrown out. Grandmother's threats worked and she saved me. She asked her son Kazek to hide me at the mill where he was a guard. The sawmill belonged to our family prior to the war but was now owned by a German named Schmidt, and Kazek watched the place. He built a hiding place and one night took me from the house in a bag of sawdust.

The hiding place was under a wooden floor amid sawdust. Kazek's brothers also worked at the mill. They had all married and left the household. Only grandmother, grandfather, their married daughter, Jozefa, and myself lived in the house that was near the sawmill. Kazek brought me to the hiding place and gave me instructions on how to behave during the day when the Polish workers tended to their jobs. He also showed me how to position myself in the hiding place so as not to arouse suspicions. I could not sit, move or turn in the dark hiding place. During the day it was still bearable but at night it was frightening. I kept dreaming about my parents and brothers. I had the premonition that they were all killed. I did not want to dream but could not help myself. The dreams continued and I always awakened to stark reality. Furthermore, rats occasionally walked over my body and I could not do a thing about it for there was no room for my hands to move. I was left with the terrible feeling of the creatures walking about me.

For several months I continued to sleep in sawdust under the wooden floor. Autumn was approaching and with it came the rains. Everything was wet and dreary. The cold weather became a reality. Still I had to stay in hiding during the day for fear of being spotted by a worker or by a customer who came to buy wood. Only at night could I slowly venture out As a result of my hiding position, I could barely walk. I was depressed and the thought of ending my life frequently crossed my mind but I was a coward. I did not divulge these thoughts to Kazek for fear of embarrassing him after all his efforts on my behalf.

Winter approached and the family decided to return me to the house. They still hid me here and there but within the house for it was bitter cold outside. I also became accustomed to my new Christian family and realized then that I would never return to Judaism. I no longer wanted to belong to the persecuted and humiliated Jewish people. Grandfather always told me that the Jewish people had always been persecuted throughout history. Even the Arabs were killing the Jews in Palestine. I heard and saw all these things. I saw how Jews were being persecuted while the Christian children played and had fun. I felt jealous and felt ashamed at having been born a Jew.

These thoughts persisted and became stronger as time passed. Suddenly, the roar of shells shook the entire area for we were near the Krosno airport. The Russians shelled the entire area prior to their advance and for several days the cannon fire could be heard and then silence. The area was liberated but nobody came to take me home. I started school for the first time in 1945 and was registered as a Christian student. I excelled in my studies since I devoted myself wholeheartedly to schoolwork. I was a very good student and easily made friends. I felt a certain compensation for all the years spent in terrible deprivation. I also decided to convert to Catholicism; the deed pleased the family and gave me further security at home.

I went to the priest in Krosno and asked to be baptized. He was very surprised and told me that he knew my father. He asked whether there were any survivors in the family and I replied that I was the sole survivor. The priest baptized me on September 5, 1945, and the same month I started school for the first time. I was admitted to the seventh grade in the elementary school for which I was prepared by a private teacher since I had to make up a great deal of schooling. I was a very diligent student and loved to go to school and to study. I made many friends and wanted to be accepted. I tried to make up for all the lost time that I was locked up. I finished elementary school and received a certificate. I was registered to continue schooling the next year and meanwhile I enjoyed the summer recess during which time I met my friends and took trips with them.

My brother Avraham Akselrad survived the camps and slowly recovered from his poor medical condition. He returned to Krosno and came to the Krukierek family to look for me. Avraham Akselrad tried to take me away from the Christian family but saw that he was getting nowhere and he was too weak to fight. He spoke to me about traveling to the Jewish orphanage in Zabrze but I refused. I was determined to stay with the family. I even refused to talk to him. I left the house and hid in the bushes until I was certain that he had left the house. Then I returned home and was furious at my brother for trying to separate me from my new family. He decided to seek legal redress. He contacted the office of Rabbi Kahana and pleaded for help. Yeshayahu Drucker was assigned to the case. Drucker took the case to court since I was a minor. The court heard the case and forced me to stay with my brother at the orphanage in Zabrze for a period of two weeks. The family presented a huge bill of expenses for my upkeep during the war years. The bill had to be paid to the court as a deposit in case I did not return to the family. My brother did not have the necessary cash but he assigned his share of the family property to he Krukierek family if I did not return to their house. My share was untouched since I as a minor. Then the court began to implement the decision. The orphanage was at Zabrze and I was very homesick and wrote letters to the adoptive family but never received a reply. They also wrote letters to me but I did not receive them. The orphanage knew that my adoptive Polish family could kidnap bring me back to their family. The Zabrze home stopped all my correspondence. Shortly thereafter, I was sent to France with a transport of Polish Jewish children.

 

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Batia Akselrad amongst Polish Jewish children leaving Poland for France

 

I remained in Perigueux, France, for two years and then I went to Israel in 1948. I was sent to the agricultural school “Mikveh Israel” and in 1950 I joined the army. In 1953, I married and raised a family. I have two sons and four grandchildren. I live in a private home at Kiriat Ono and tend to my garden. I spend my time attending lectures and reading books.

I continued to write to the Krukierek family and even maintain correspondence with the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the family. Jozefa Krukierek, the woman who kept me hidden during the war years, died in 2002 at the age of 92. I helped her with whatever I could. I continue to correspond with the younger members of the family who do not even know me. But it is important for me to maintain contact with my past.

Signed Batia Eisenstein nee Akselrod

 

Michal Heffer

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Michal Heffer (Hinda Zurkowska) as an infant

 

Michal Heffer, formerly Hinda Zurkowska, was another child redeemed by Captain Yeshayahu Drucker. Michal Heffer's family was well established and included many rabbis. Michal was the only member of her family who survived the Nazis. She was smuggled out from the Warsaw Ghetto and handed to a non–Jewish family who in turn handed her over to another family and eventually she wound up in a church nearly 200 kilometers from Warsaw. She was taken in by the local priest, given chores and for a year became a farmhand,

 

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Michal Heffer with her father and brother prior to World War Two

 

tending to the cows and helping out around the church, even singing in the church choir. One day, returning from the fields with the cows, she saw a crowd gathered in front of the church. A big official Polish military car was there and everyone was staring at it. The priest rushed her into the church where she was confronted by a tall, blond Polish military officer and an American in a U.S. Army uniform. She remembers that “The American smiled at me and spoke to me in Polish, reaching into his pocket and showing me photographs of my family, my grandfather, whose picture I imagined I'd seen on the church wall, my mother and others of the family. He said he was my cousin Yehuda Elberg. Then I remembered him; I used to sit on his knee in Warsaw. He'd moved to the U.S. a few years before the war started.” At the time Elberg, a journalist, was attached to the U.S. Army's press corps. “The Polish officer produced papers from the court saying that cousin Elberg was my legal guardian,” Michal added. “The priest was a little afraid of the Polish officer

 

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Michal Heffer's mother

 

and the official paper and didn't argue. I gathered up my few things, and got in the big army car. The Polish officer was Yeshayahu Drucker. As was his custom, Drucker left money with the priest for caring for me and risking his life in the process. We left the house. The village people stared after us. The drive was pleasant but tense in the military car. I was sad on leaving the place where I had spent so much time and became so attached to. I wondered where I was heading and what the future held in store for me. Then, suddenly, the car stopped at a roadblock outside Pilczica, not far from Kielce. We were all forced at gunpoint to step out of the car.”

The men with weapons were part of the anti–Communist “Armija Krajowa” (home army), the largest para–military underground organization in Poland during the war. The group was extremely nationalistic and anti–Semitic. Jews who joined with them during the war hid their Jewish identity. When the war ended, the Army Krajowa did not stop its para–military activities but continued to harass both the Polish government and any Jewish survivors it came across. This militia considered the communists the enemy of Poland, and the Jews part of the communist plan to take over the country.

 

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Batia Akselrod Eisenstein (left) Michal Heffer (right) at Zabrze

 

Anti–Semitism was rampant in the region around Kielce and Jews were not safe on the roads. Yeshayahu Drucker, in a Polish Army uniform, was in double jeopardy. First, he was part of the Polish army that was an arm of the communist–run government. Second, he was a Jew.

A militia soldier approached Drucker and in a friendly tone asked who he was and why he had a little girl in a Polish military vehicle. Michal Heffer said Drucker then made a nearly fatal mistake. “She's a Jewish girl, we're taking her back to Warsaw,” Drucker answered. The militia soldier went back to the commander, who was still at the roadblock, and conferred with him. The soldier came back, pushed Drucker to the side, pulled back the breach of his rifle and was ready to take aim. Drucker realized he was in serious trouble and started talking fast. “You see that guy over there? He's an American officer. A journalist. You shoot me, he'll have it in every newspaper in America. So you'll have to shoot him, too. You ready to do that?” Confused, the soldier went back to the commander. Another conference ensued. Then the soldier returned, jerked his rifle in the direction of the car. Michal said she and Drucker and Elberg got in, and drove away, fast.

“I thought I was going home with Elberg, but he explained that he couldn't take care of me. Rather I was going to Zabrze, to the Jewish orphanage. And that's where I went with Uncle Elberg and Pan Kapitan.”

Drucker visited her at Zabzre, stopping by to say hello when he'd drop off another child, or just come out on a Sunday. According to Michal, many of the children at the Zabrze home considered themselves Christians and even attended church services on Sundays. Pan Kapitan had a great deal of patience with the children and gave them a great deal of attention.

 

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Michal Heffer

 

What is clear from the Heffer story is that in nearly every case, removing Jewish children from non–Jewish homes was a very tedious, delicate and dangerous situation.

 

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Israeli President Ezer Weitzman awards prize to Michal Heffer

 

Michal went with the second children's transport from Zabrze, Poland, to France where she remained for about two years at Perigueux, France, and then arrived in Israel. She served in the army and they married and raised a family. She lives at her Kfar Vitkin home. Michal is a published author and recognized artist in Israel. She received an award from the state.

 

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