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[Not included in the original book]

History and construction
of the Zychlin synagogue

by Michal Ryter

Translated by Leon Zamosc

Zychlin was granted town privileges before 1385. For most of its history, it was a private city, playing the role of the center of a large complex of land estates, often changing owners. At the end of the reign of King August III, the city became the property of Kazimierz Pruszak and remained in the hands of this family for the next three generations.

Probably the first Jewish settlers appeared in Zychlin only at the beginning of the 18th century. Traces of this settlement can be found in the tax documents of 1734-1735, where the Jewish community in Zychlin was mentioned for the first time, as a kehila of the Kutno commune that paid 140 zlotys in tax. According to data from 1765, 311 Jews living in the city and the surrounding villages belonged to the kehila. Around 1780, it gained the status of an independent community, as evidenced by the poll tax register, probably from 1781.

In 1789-90 there were 66 houses in Zychlin. According to the tariffs of the chimney tax from that period, 29 houses belonged to Catholics, 23 to Jews, and 14 were owned by the church. With the creation of the independent kehila in Zychlin, the Jews began their efforts to build a new synagogue befitting their status as a community. The new building was to replace the old prayer house that had been erected around the third decade of the 18th century. After the project was endorsed by the town's owner, Tomasz Pruszak, an approval request was submitted to the archbishop of Gniezno, Antoni Ostrowski. With a document issued in Skierniewice on August 18, 1780, he complied with the request of the kehila, ordering that, “to avoid scandal or agitation during the proclamation of the word of God, it should be erected in a place distant from the parish church, not as a bricked building, but made of wood.” The document mentioned the old synagogue: “The Jews of this town have had their synagogue here from ancient times. Since the old synagogue is in poor condition, destroyed with the passage of time and now dilapidated, they have humbly asked our approval of their plan to rebuild, or to complete a new construction in the place”. For the permission to build a synagogue, Jews were required to pay two Hungarian ducats to the local parish priest each year and to give one tallow stone for the candles.

The new synagogue was built as a wooden structure on a rectangular plan resembling a square. According to the municipal cadastral records from 1818, it was 27.5 x 25.5 Warsaw cubits (15.5 x 14.6 m). We know absolutely nothing about its architectural form, as no source materials have survived. However, this synagogue was thoroughly rebuilt around 1850. The condition after the reconstruction is documented by a preserved photograph, most probably taken at the beginning of the 20th century, which shows that the common body covered all the main rooms. The rooms for women, located above the vestibule, were reached by a staircase located in the front. In the ground floor, from south and north, there were rectangular doors leading to the vestibule. The walls of the building in the side elevations were regularly pierced by two pairs of windows, smaller ones in the women's section and much larger ones illuminating the prayer room. The whole building is covered with a multi-storey mansard roof protected with shingle.

 

Wooden synagogue rebuilt around 1850

 

In the 1840s, along with the increase in the number of Jewish inhabitants of Zychlin, an ambitious plan of communal construction investments was launched under the patronage of the then kehila elders Abram Zandberg, Abram Debinski and Man Kilbert. A completely new complex of synagogue buildings was to be erected in place of the existing wooden and old synagogue buildings, which were in poor condition. It was supposed to include a brick synagogue and, to be built again in wooden materials, a house for a rabbi with a beit hamidrash and a mikveh building with a hospital. The work on the design documentation was commissioned under the ordinary administrative procedure to the builder of the Gostynin district, Sylwester Baldi, whose duties included architectural design of public buildings with their estimated cost.

In mid-August 1844, the builder completed the design work and the investment documentation package containing a cost estimate, two drawings of architectural designs, a building site plan covering an adjacent part of the city, and a consultation protocol for further official approval. On June 8, 1844, the synagogue supervisory authorities requested the approval of the Masovian Gubernia authorities to carry out the construction by the community itself under the so-called “administrative system” (rather than the “bidding system”). The “administrative system” consisted in the submission of a written declaration by the interested parties providing their own valuation of the works, which allowed the investment of amounts that were lower than the calculation based on the plans and cost estimates. The main reason for this was not just the rationalization of investment costs, but also the fear that the lack of financial resources would delay the commencement of construction works and thus adversely affect the date of their completion. Considering the existing bureaucratic procedures, such a danger was by all means justified, considering that in Kutno, for example, a much more modest investment in the construction of a new choir in the old synagogue had lasted nearly seven years.

Despite the fact that the “administrative system” was most often used when the sources of financing came from a single investor, the initiative was supported by the head of the Kutno Poviat. He considered that doing the works under the “administrative system” would be more economical for the community and that, in the longer term, would contribute to the collection of larger voluntary donations for the construction. He also considered that the representatives of the synagogue district would donate from their own funds to “rush the construction without asking for interest.”

The request included the approval of the administrative committee, selected from among the most prominent representatives of the city's Jewish community. The committee members were Josek Krajer, Wolek Rozenbaum, Pawel Lasman, Zelik Klinger, Michal Helmer, Josek Zajderman and Abram Hersz Lasman. The supervisory staff and the rabbi were also supposed to watch over the proper implementation of the investment. In addition, the supervision requested that, before drawing up and approving the distribution of the community fees, the provincial authorities inform the members of the committee about their disposition to start the construction “at the right time” under the oversight of the county builder.

Meanwhile, the lengthy bureaucratic machine was launched, beginning with the inspection of the cost estimates by Stefan Balinski, construction assessor of the Masovian Gubernia. The revision resulted in a reduction in the cost estimates of all the designed synagogue buildings. The cost of building a brick synagogue, taking into account the declaration of the city owner, Aleksander Pruszak, who offered to donate 111,000 burnt bricks and 19,000 carp tiles for the construction of the synagogue, was calculated at 2,450 rubles. The construction of the rabbi's house and the prayer room was estimated at 853 rubles, while the construction of the hospital and the apartment for the mikveh manager was estimated at 515. Total overhead costs for the entire complex of synagogue buildings were to amount to 3,818 rubles.

On November 14, 1844, the provincial government presented the synagogue buildings in Zychlin for approval of the Government's Office for Internal and Religious Affairs in Warsaw. The documentation was sent to the Department of Industry and Craftsmanship, which revised the cost estimates again and checked with the Construction Council the calculation of the list of costs of all synagogue buildings using old materials. In the end, the cost estimate of the brick synagogue, after being checked by the government builder Damazy Borzecki, decreased to the amount of 2,032 rubles. At the same time, the government builder made minor changes to the architectural plan of the synagogue in relation to the original design by Sylwester Baldi. Anyway, nothing is known about them, because the architectural drawings of the synagogue have not survived, contrary to the accompanying cost estimates. According to them, the synagogue was to be erected on a rectangular plan, 38.5 x 23 cubits (i.e. 22 x 15 m), on the top of a cornice made of lime-burned brick, with a roof covered with plain tiles in a lace manner. In the case of the rabbi's house and the hospital, the Department of Industry and Craftsmanship decided that these buildings should also be made of brick, as it was forbidden to build wooden houses in cities. The Department of Denominations also commented on this matter, noting that according to the regulations of the Construction Police of September 26, 1820, it was only possible to erect wooden buildings in cities whose surrounding areas were completely devoid of bricklaying materials and that, in the case of Zychlin, there was no information on the topic. In this situation, the Denominations Department informed the provincial government on February 20 1845 that it would suspend issuing a final decision on the building of wooden houses for the rabbi and the hospital until the matter was resolved. In response, the provincial government sent to the Office for Internal and Religious Affairs in Warsaw a protocol that was jointly drawn up by the municipality and the synagogue supervision, explaining the reason for erecting wooden buildings in Zychlin. Based on these explanations, the Office for Internal and Religious Affairs approved on August 13 1845 the cost estimate of all the synagogue buildings along with their architectural plans for a total amount of 3,343 rubles. On that basis, the provincial government issued the final decision which allowed the construction works to begin.

First, the kehila committee started to build the rabbi's house with a house of study and the mikveh with a hospital, considering that they were more urgent and less costly and that, at that stage of the construction, the expenses were only covered with the private funds of the committee members. The intended plans were fully implemented, as evidenced by two acceptance reports drawn up by the magistrate, the synagogue supervision and the district builder on November 17 1850 and August 28 1851. The house for the rabbi and the prayer room were built in a log structure on a foundation, with outer and middle walls made of 4-inch sawn logs connected with a lock and pillars. According to the records, it was built on a rectangular plan with dimensions of 30 x 20 cubits (17 x 11.5 m) and 6 cubits high from the foundation up to the beams. The roof with two gables was made of a timber frame filled with lime-fired brick, and the whole roof was shingled. The mikveh was 27 x 20 cubits and 4 cubits 18 inches high from the foundation up to the beams. It was a log structure on a stone and brick foundation above the ground, laid on lime, and in the ground on clay with circular walls made of 5-inch logs, and central 4-inch walls joined with a lock and poles.

According to the acceptance protocols, the synagogue administration spent 879 rubles for this purpose, and “asked” for them to be returned from the community treasury in order to complete further construction works. The Gubernia authorities complied with the committee's request, but they considered the return of the entire sum impossible due to the lack of sufficient funds in the synagogue fund, in which only 822 rubles were deposited. However, the payment did not take place because of the cholera epidemic raging in Zychlin in 1852. The members of the committee Wolek Rozenbaum and Josek Krajer, who were in charge of the construction works and were fully trusted by the commune, were victims of the epidemic. The foremen used for the construction also died. Most of the funds deposited in the cash register were spent on material aid for impoverished residents. In such a difficult situation, the construction of a brick synagogue was abandoned, the more so because a large part of the wealthier Jews left the city during the cholera epidemic.

The project of building a brick synagogue was resumed twenty years after those dramatic events. In 1875, an engineer from the Kutno Poviat sent a cost estimate for the construction of a brick synagogue in Zychlin for the amount of 10,501 rubles to the construction department of the Gubernia. The cost estimate was accompanied by architectural plans, a protocol from the meeting of members of the commune regarding the investment, and an excerpt from the Bank of Poland confirming that the funds needed for the construction were available in the supervision's account.

The architecture of the synagogue was designed by Jan Kowalski, an engineer of the Kutno Poviat, who most likely based it on the previous design by Sylwester Baldi. The synagogue project was then sent to the architect of the Warsaw Gubernia, Aleksander Woyde, but it is difficult to ascertain whether he made any fundamental changes to Kowalski's design.

 

Brick synagogue built around 1880

 

The positive decision of the authorities regarding the construction of the synagogue in Zychlin was made on May 21 1876, and its final implementation took place in 1880 at the latest. It was erected near the old wooden synagogue, which had been rebuilt in the middle of the century. The brick synagogue was a 16 x 22 m rectangular building with a square prayer room on the east and a vestibule on the west. The walls of the building were regularly pierced by tall arched windows. The height of the windows, due to the fact that there were galleries in the main hall, allowed the illumination of the interior on all levels. Windows were the main compositional element of the building's exterior architecture, which was designed very modestly. The body of the building was covered with a gable roof with triangular gables. By the very end of the century, the wooden mikvah building was demolished and replaced by a brick building with a boiler room.

In the 1920s, construction work was carried out on the walls of the synagogue changing the composition of the side elevations. At that time, rectangular openings leading to the vestibule were carved on the north and south with rich architectural frames. However, during the German occupation, the high windows were bricked up, leaving only their upper fragments to illuminate the interior. The synagogue has survived in this architectural shape to this day. Inside, a gallery has survived, running around the main hall on three sides, supported by cast-iron fluted Corinthian columns, with a high wooden balustrade filled with rows of panels with painted decorations. On the eastern wall, near the recess for the Aron Kodesh, the remains of wall paintings have survived.

 

The Zychlin synagogue today

 

[Not included in the original book]

Yeshiva Boys

by Hersz Bursztajn[1]

Recorded and edited by Fay Vogel Bussgang

 

Small Town Life

Most of the Jews in the small towns of Poland were small business people, working in grain, livestock, lumber, hardware, bakery, grocery stores, and the like. Most of the people were very poor, as there wasn't much money or much business in small towns. Usually the peasants came to town once a week, I think on Friday. The peasants brought their produce and sold it. They didn't have stores but just displayed their produce on benches. On the market day, the Jews did some business, but the other days, most of their time was free, so they usually had time to study. Although they had time to study, they barely made a living. Of course, it was desirable to be rich, and rich people were always honored, but few had that opportunity.

Zychlin was a typical Polish town with few Jewish people. There was no census in those days, but I suppose it had about 8,000 to 10,000 people. There was a Jewish tailor and a shoemaker who made shoes by hand, a baker, a grain merchant, a hardware dealer, a coal dealer, and a kerosene dealer, all Jews. A few Jews leased fruit orchards; they lived in town, but during the season for picking fruit, they took a small tent and went out to live in the orchards and then came back into town in the fall. But even these leaseholders were not usually very rich and simply sold their fruit on a small push cart. In towns all over Poland, the merchants were mostly Jewish.

Like other small towns, Zychlin had town officials who were responsible for road building. It had its own police as well. In Zychlin, there was a Christian grade school that was run by the town. Although it was run by the town, no Jews would teach in the school or attend as pupils.

 

The Yeshiva

When I reached thirteen, my father decided that I was far enough advanced in my studies to go to a yeshiva. I attended the yeshiva in Zychlin through arrangements that my mother made. Mother's cousin[2] was an ordained rabbi in Zychlin, but he did not practice. His wife operated a hardware store and provided a living for the family, so that her husband could spend his time in the synagogue for study and prayer. I studied under him. It was popular at that time in Poland that the wife provided for the family and the husband spent his time studying. He was goodness personified, and his wife was very proud of him. As her husband was very pious, she was sure the good Lord would compensate him and they would be together in Paradise, and all the good angels would be with them so that they would enjoy their reward for the good deeds they did while they were alive.

Mother's cousin was a great teacher, a conservative transmitting only the proven tradition. He was prominent among his contemporaries in town, and they all abided by his decisions as he expounded them, and they called him Rabbi with a capital R.

We were then living in Łódź, and I went with my mother in horse and buggy to Zychlin. She made all the arrangements for the yeshiva and stayed there a few days with me. I stayed with my mother's uncle, her mother's brother. He was a retired grain merchant.

There was no such thing as tuition in the yeshiva. It was supported by the community, and the community also bought the books that the boys used. The yeshiva was located in a special building belonging to the community, next to the synagogue. The men of the town usually gathered there to pray as anyone from the town was entitled to come there. A boy had to have some knowledge to come to the yeshiva, but it was democratic, and people usually studied several years and left when they chose. Usually to get in, a rabbi teaching there would give the boy a little exam to decide if he was ready.

Although there was no tuition, the real problem for the yeshiva boys who did not live in the town was room and board. There were no scholarships, but the Jewish people of the community, believing in education, supported the yeshiva students by offering them meals. It was arranged that a boy would eat one day each week at different houses. This was a kind of private charity, but it was very painful for the boys receiving it. Most families were very poor, and it was a sacrifice to give up this food. Some boys didn't even get meals every day and had to do without for one or two days a week. Some people didn't treat the boys very nicely. I remember having to eat in the kitchen with the servant. It made me feel like a charity case, and I never forgave my mother for this. I didn't really want to go away to yeshiva, and I felt very disturbed when I arrived there. I felt humiliated, and so I became very depressed.

At the yeshiva, almost all our time was spent in study. Study, study, study. If a boy was bright, he would become a favorite of his teacher, and the teacher would take great interest in him. Although I did well, I looked around and saw all the poverty of life in the yeshiva, so I never felt there was any future in it.

I had a number of friends in the yeshiva, but I lost touch with them after coming to America. We boys spent the whole day in the yeshiva. I imagine that some of the boys managed to marry a rich girl, but most of them were wiped out by Hitler. When I returned home after a little over two years in the yeshiva to became a cutter, the boys of the yeshiva looked on me as an outcast. To be a working man instead of a scholar was very much against their way of thinking. I did get one letter, after I arrived in America, from a boy explaining his poor circumstances, and I think I sent him some clothes.

Before I left for the yeshiva, we prepared my clothes, and I got no new clothes that I remember during my two and a half years in the yeshiva. I never returned home during this period. Of course, my clothes became old and ragged and a little small for me during this time, but this was the usual way among boys in the yeshiva, so no one thought anything about it. Some students who didn't have a family to live with even stayed in school at night and slept on the benches. In the winter, there was some heat in the yeshiva, so this was not a serious problem. My parents sent me a little spending money while I was in the yeshiva. They didn't send more because they didn't have much, so about the only thing we could buy occasionally was sparkling water and some rolls to eat.

Although I slept at my relatives, all day from dawn till dark was spent in the yeshiva. There was no recreation. We simply stayed there and studied. Sometimes, someone had a new interpretation of a passage, and then we discussed the interpretation, arguing back and forth. Usually, it was one of the rabbis who had a new interpretation, but sometimes it was a student. Actually, the study was very democratic and free. A student could ask questions of the rabbi if he wished.

Although a boy did have to read certain parts of the Talmud, the same as the rabbi was reading, the rest of the time, he was free to read whatever parts of the Talmud he wished. Sometimes, someone told stories about medieval times. There were lots of jokes and funny stories, and this was the main amusement we had. There were almost no magazines or newspapers, but there were a few books.

Most of the boys were very serious. Among the boys, the big shot was the one who knew the most. He would be respected by the rabbis and the other boys. There were also some “smart alecks.” Some boys enjoyed telling ghost stories or else stories about angels. Even the “smart alecks” rarely talked about girls. There were not even dirty stories, and dates were unthinkable. The yeshiva boy rarely saw a girl before marriage. There was no physical exercise except for the shaking of the head during prayer, but as the whole body moved during prayer, this did constitute a kind of exercise.

The boys were mostly stiff around the rabbi, very serious. The joking was usually while the rabbi was out. But the boys were serious, too, as they wanted to learn.

The life of eating every day in a different place, seeing how all the poor Talmudists lived, deflated my spirit. They lived in the greatest poverty, and I became depressed and started to think about what I would do for a future. As there were no analysts to go to, I had to work out the problem by myself. I decided to quit studying, to leave the yeshiva. While I was thinking of being a drop-out, I went to talk it over with my rebbe, my mother's cousin, and he advised me to stay on a few months, until fall, after the Jewish holidays. I did so.

When I came home, I revealed my decision to become a tailor to my mother. When Mother heard this, she became very sad and started to cry, telling me I disappointed her in becoming a working man, a traitor to this way of life. Father didn't care so much, because he was born and raised in Brzeziny, but to Mother, it was a disgrace, since there were no working men in Mother's family. In my mother's family, there was a teacher, a hardware store operator, and a cantor, but no regular workers.

I knew a cutter in Brzeziny, but I first went home to Lodz after leaving the yeshiva, and then I went to Brzeziny and became a cutter.

 

New Winds of Culture

When I was studying in the yeshiva, Western culture began to penetrate the Jewish shtetls, and the youth became interested in other culture and literature. It was not so unusual to find some of us sitting with a secular volume in our hands underneath the table, with a copy of the Babylonian Talmud on top of our desk. Every day in the yeshiva, I saw around me the older Talmudists, what you would call graduate students today, all living in poverty.

I was among the youngest. Those who graduated and left lived a life of poverty except those who married a rich man's daughter. Just as a mother today wants her son to be a lawyer or a doctor, the mother of that time wanted her son to be a good Talmudist in order to marry a rich daughter. The reason was because all the rich Jews, who were not usually learned people, always wanted to mate their daughters with a scholar, so they could have a learned son-in-law.

While we were of school age, a great new Yiddish literature also appeared with more modern subjects. Ideas of socialism penetrated the modern Jewish mind. So, the Talmud began to lie around on our shelves and became less and less a book for devoted study.

To older Jews like my mother, it was a disgrace for people to work. There were many luftmensch, people with no work. So, when younger Jewish people actually went to the Land of Israel to work, there was a whole new movement. Even in my day, however, the majority still wanted the traditional education. Only a minority of the younger people wanted a secular education.


Translator's footnotes

  1. This account by Hersz Bursztajn (1890–1978), known in the U.S. as Joe Vogel, was given orally to his son, Ezra Vogel, in the late 1970s and recorded and edited by his daughter, Fay Vogel Bussgang. Return
  2. Later discovered to be Chaim Mendel Helmer. Return


[Not included in the original book]

Surviving on the Aryan side

by Helena Tzinamon-Bodek

Translated by Leon Zamosc

In June 1959, Helena Tzinamon-Bodek was interviewed by researchers of Yad Vashem in Holon, Israel. This is a translated version of her full testimony.

I was born in 1925 in Zychlin. My father Anshel Tzinamon was principal of a Jewish elementary school. After finishing elementary school I studied at the gymnasium in Plock, where I lived in a rented house. My family was not religious, but we kept the traditions. I was an only child. My father was killed soon after the German invasion. At the outbreak of the war I lived with my parents In Zychlin, a town in the Warsaw district. After the German invasion, the area of Zychlin was annexed to the Third Reich. The border (between the Reich and the so-called General Government of Poland) passed near the town. By the end of 1939, the Jews were ordered to wear a yellow badge on the back and chest are were not allowed to walk on the sidewalks. From the moment of the occupation, my father stopped working at the school. The building was confiscated and used as a jail for Polish prisoners.

Two or three months after the German occupation, relations in the city somehow normalized. There was no school for the Jewish children. My father started working as a teacher of Jewish children in our apartment on Narutowicza street. We suffered constant abuse from the Germans. The men of Hilfspolizei (auxiliary police), mostly Volksdeustche (local ethnic Germans) from neighboring areas, regularly raided the homes of the Jews and took away the most important things. In April 1940, mass arrests of the local Polish intelligentsia began - doctors, teachers, magistrates and civil servants. To round up the teachers they used the lists of the education bureau. My father was arrested on the night of April 14. He was one of the four Jews among the Polish detainees. They were taken to Kutno and, a few days later, further west. I know that, later on, some families received postcards from Dachau. But there were no signs of life from my father. Eventually, we heard that he had been killed at one of the travel stations. As far as I know, very few people returned from that transport. The few who came back had been assigned to places of work on the way. Those who reached Dachau were never seen again.

After my father was arrested, I stayed in our apartment with my mother Janina until May 1940. In May, the authorities ordered the Jewish population to concentrate in a ghetto. The order was given by the mayor - a German who had been brought from the Reich. The ghetto extended between Narutowicza (the main street) and Buszkowska street. Despite the fact that our apartment was inside the designated ghetto area, my mother and I decided to escape from Zychlin. A typhus epidemic had just broken out in the town and, by then, we already knew about what was happening in Lodz ghetto, where there was hunger, disease, and people were locked up. Zychlin was surrounded by guards and Jews and Poles were not allowed to leave, but we hid in the attic, packed our belongings in suitcases and fled through the fields bypassing the checkposts. We arrived in Plock, where we were received by the family of my mother's sister (her husband's family name was Kruk). Our belongings were brought to us by Polish acquaintances.

We stayed with the Kruk family for several months. They were poor and could not help with our livelihood. Meanwhile, we heard rumors that in the Zychlin ghetto that the situation of the Jews was tolerable, they had freedom of movement and they kept in touch with the Polish population. We began to consider the possibility of returning. I thought that the people who knew and appreciated my father would help us and I would be able to support both of us continuing his work as a teacher. So we returned to the Zychlin ghetto. Of course, our apartment was already occupied. But, thanks to the intervention of Chelmski, who was a member of the Judenrat, we got an apartment - first in a house bordering the ghetto and then in the ghetto area. I started working as a teacher and my mother ran the house.

The ghetto area was administered by the Judenrat, which included previous community leaders and especially new people who had been appointed through cunning or subservience to the Schutzpolizei (the German gendarmerie). The Jewish police also operated in the area (they wore armbands with an emblem of authority). The Jewish population survived mainly from the sale of belongings or valuables that they had managed to hide. The Jews could not leave the ghetto, but the Polish merchants were allowed to enter. The exchanges were facilitated by the Jewish police which, thanks to this “monopoly”, gained increasing influence over life in the ghetto. Eventually, the people of the Judenrat lost control of the Jewish area. Taking advantage of the fact that he was in charge of the Jewish police, one of the Judenrat members, Yosef Oberman, ended up concentrating all the power in his hands. Assisted by the head of the Judenrat , a baker called Alter Rozenberg, he marginalized all the other members of the Judenrat and they became the masters of the ghetto. Oberman was a young man, originally from a good, rich family of Zychlin. He owed his power to his relationship with the Hilfspolizei and the Schutzpolizei, which had the authority over the Jewish police. This connection was not only administrative but also commercial. The members of the Judenrat and the Jewish police had freedom of movement outside the ghetto and the only way in which a Jew was allowed to leave the ghetto (for example, to the doctor, to an office) was in the company of a Jewish policeman. Later on, when people began to be sent to forced labor camps In Germany, the power of the Jewish police increased even more.

At first only men were taken to work, then women as well. The Jewish police were responsible for the quota of people. The execution was in the hands of the Hilfspolizei and the Schutzpolizei, who snatched the people from their homes in raids that usually took place at night. From the postcards that came from the camps, it was known that hard work and illness were crippling the workers. There were different people in the police, some of them decent, who just wanted to save themselves from being sent to camps, but there were also people of a different kind, such as Oberman and Rozenberg, who took advantage of their status for control, influence and enrichment. The rest were “little fish.” It was rare for the Jews to try to leave the ghetto furtively. Some, especially the poor, would try to go out to nearby villages to get food. When they were caught they were abused, but most of the time the matter ended with the intervention of the Jewish police. There were frequent incidents, where the Schutzpolizei would enter the ghetto to steal under the pretense of confiscation of property. For the most part it was a matter of private initiatives that usually ended with the intervention of the Jewish police and the payment of a ransom. This was roughly the situation until the end of 1941.

At that time, rumors began to reach us about the extermination of the Jews in other towns. The first news was about the mass killing of the Jews of Klodawa. People who managed to escape from the place of annihilation reported that the Jews were brought to the forests of Chelmno and poisoned with gas in special trucks. Among the fugitives were eyewitnesses who had buried the corpses with their own hands. The atmosphere in the Zychlin ghetto changed to restlessness and panic.

At the beginning of 1942, relations within the ghetto deteriorated. There were several cases of Jews who were caught outside the ghetto and killed. In January or February 1942, Oberman and Rosenberg, the heads of the Judenrat, were arrested by the Schutzpolizei. A few days later there were rumors that they had been hanged. The Schutzpolizei began a hunt for one of Oberman's closest collaborators, who had fled or gone into hiding immediately after Oberman's arrest. They also arrested people who had previously had trade dealings with them. The corpse of a young Jewish girl was found in the Jewish cemetery. I do not remember her name, but it was known that she had connections with the Schutzpolizei. The few Jews who still worked in the German factories around the area were forbidden to go outside the ghetto.

There was panic among the Jewish population. There were many who thought about fleeing to the Warsaw ghetto. They knew that the Jews of the small towns were being killed, but they could not believe that the Germans would attempt to exterminate the entire Jewish population of such a big city. The youth also thought about the possibility of “resistance” in Warsaw. A group organized an escape to Warsaw, but they were caught and killed in Zychlin's cemetery.

The final sign that the liquidation of the ghetto was approaching was the suspension of mail delivery. This convinced us, my mother and me, that if we wanted to avoid deportation we had to flee. At the end of February we dressed in our best clothes, took off our “patches” and crossed into the Aryan side. The ghetto was not surrounded by a fence or barbed wire. Behind the last houses there were extensive fields, so that our escape was not difficult. There was only the fear that Poles or Germans would recognize us. We took the road leading to Gombin. On the way we stopped a farmer's cart and got a ride. In Gombin we stayed with an acquaintance, Holtzman, who was a member of the Judenrat. About a week after our arrival, a group of young men from Zychlin ghetto arrived in Gombin, bringing the news of the ghetto's liquidation. They escaped by chance because they were working outside the ghetto transporting things for the Hilfspolizei. From their stories, it became clear to me that the terror inside the ghetto had started a few days before the aktion of deportation. Every day Jews were killed on the street and blood flowed in the sewers. The Germans killed the entire Oberman family, all the members of the Judenrat, and the Jewish policemen. Under threat of death, people were ordered to hand over their furs and jewelry. The aktion took place on Purim. They brought peasant carts and loaded the Jews so densely that they had to stand holding on to each other. During loading, those who did not carry out the orders quickly enough were shot. Finally, the carts left town in an unknown direction.

We only stayed in Gombin for a few weeks, so I cannot provide details about the town's ghetto. As far as I know, the ghetto was not fenced. When the refugees arrived from Zychlin, the Jews of Gombin were surprised by the news they had brought. They had no idea that there was an ongoing operation to exterminate the Jews. One day, German police appeared on the Jewish streets of Gombin. The neighborhood was surrounded and closed. A few minutes later, the Jews were ordered to stay in their homes. The Schutzpolizei combed the houses and rounded up the men, leaving only the elders and the members of the Judenrat. That same night, all the men were driven in an unknown direction. There is no need to describe the mood on the next day.

Again without “patches” and without documents we set out through the fields with the idea of reaching Strzegow, where we had relatives with whom we had been corresponding. There were no Jews on the roads. We walked from Gombin to Plock. There, we stayed with Polish acquaintances who reluctantly agreed to host us for the night. From Plock we continued on foot to Plonsk, where we hired a cart that drove us to Strzegow. I describe our journey briefly, but it was very difficult. We were in constant danger of being caught because we did not have any papers. Evert time we tried to approach a Pole or a stranger, they would run away from us like a plague.

It was already the spring of 1942 when we arrived in Strzegow. The place, not far from Mlawa, was more a village than a town. How many Jews lived there I do not know, because I had never been there before the war. The Jews lived in a ghetto, surrounded by a wooden fence that was not difficult to cross. There was no German vigilance. The official entrance was through a gate guarded by Jewish policemen. We stayed with the family of my mother's brother Israel Rozen with whom, as I said, we had been in touch through letters. From them we learned that the Strzegow Jews knew nothing about the aktionen and killings in other Jewish towns. Our stories about Gombin and Zychlin caused panic among the Jews in the ghetto. Then came other refugees, who confirmed our stories.

I spent several months in Strzegow. If I remember right, there was a Jewish police in the ghetto and the leader of the Judenrat was someone called Bogen. Afraid of being arrested, he ran away and was replaced by his deputy Skowron. I did not spend enough time in Strzegow to learn much about the situation and the relations in the ghetto. Also, soon after our arrival I got sick with typhus and my mother and I spent most of the time at home.

Many Jews worked outside the ghetto. Almost all the young men went out every day accompanied by guards to work in the harvest on a nearby farm. In the fall, they started to take women out of the ghetto to work in peat mining in the area. This work was associated with a stay in a temporary camp. It was very hard work and I heard about many cases of women who died from the hardships and the awful sanitary conditions. The Jewish police was responsible for preparing the list of the workers and organizing their shipment. They came looking for me several times, but I hid in the attic. Due to the crowded living conditions (several families in one apartment), typhus transmitted by lice spread in the ghetto. Getting treatment was difficult because it was necessary to hide the outbreak of the plague from the Germans. The sick people were hidden in a hut and left alone. There was no Jewish doctor. The Polish doctor Wisniewski was a decent man who maintained secrecy and did not report anything to the German authorities. If the Germans showed up, the sick people would get out of bed to avoid the consequences of being discovered. The Schutzpolizei entered the ghetto frequently to hunt people down and make arrests on false pretenses (such as finding butter, etc.). It was said that they were members of the Schutzpolizei from Mlawa. They came in large numbers looking for prey.

I remember well the last manhunt I witnessed. The Germans burst into the ghetto at down, took out the entire population to the street and separated women and men. The men were organized in groups of ten and, as they said in the ghetto, were “locked up in the dungeon” for several weeks. The Jewish police guarded them. In the meantime, they brought back from Mlawa a number of Jews who had been caught in previous hunts. Among them was a relative of mine called Hersz Szurek. He had been held there for several days and now joined the group of detainees who were guessing what fate awaited them. My relative encouraged them to hold out and proudly bear their fate. On the day of the execution, a gallows was erected in the center of the ghetto. The entire population, including the children, was gathered there. Machine guns were placed behind the backs of the crowd. Between ten and twenty Jews were then hanged on that day.

My mother and I started thinking about escaping again. It was clear to us that we could not go to another ghetto. Only on the Aryan side there was a chance of survival. I had a friend in Wloclawek, a young Aryan guy with whom I maintained correspondence and on whose help we could rely. Wearing a peasant dress and carrying a hoe in my hand I left the ghetto. I knew that just being on the road posed a danger to me, regardless of my “Polish looks”. Circulating on the roads was also dangerous for the Poles, because moving from one town to another required a transit permit. I made my way to Wloclawek partly on foot and partly on a truck. On the way, I spent the night with farmers. I told them that I had ran away from hunger and misery in the General Government, that I was looking for work as a housemaid or a nanny, and that I had to avoid the authorities because I did not have a work card. In those areas, every Pole had to carry an employment card that stated his place of work. Those who were caught away from their workplaces were sent to work in Germany. I had a card from one of my cousins, with a fingerprint, bearing the name Teresa Rozen. I had corrected the name to Rozenska.

To my dismay, when I arrived in Wloclawek I found out that my friend had been detained, so all my hopes were dashed. I stayed for several days with a teacher, whose address I had received from the farmers who had hosted me night before. When I told the teacher my story she was very moved and offered to keep me with her and enroll me in school. This was impossible because I did not have a registration certificate as a resident. In the end, I decided to go back to Strzegow. There, my mother kept insisting that we had to look for a shelter option outside the ghetto. I went to Slawecin, a pretty rich village in the same district, where I told the story that I was running away from the General Government and looking for some occupation. I managed to stay with the sister-in-law of Soltys (the head of the village), who offered me maintenance in exchange for work in the household and teaching her children. There were no schools and the Polish children had to study in secret. I was able to get a place for my mother as well, working as a housekeeper for the tailor Golebiowski. I brought her to the village after a few days. Thanks to my “Aryan looks” and my ability to speak good Polish, I did not arouse any suspicions. My mother, however, despite her excellent command of the language, was bound to be discovered. Her habits in the kitchen and household betrayed her. Growing up, I had spent a lot of time with Polish acquaintances and visiting their homes. But my mother, who had rarely left the Jewish environment, was easy to spot as a Jewess. After a few days, my mother was deported and showed up at my place. Our secret had been discovered and my landlady told us that we should both leave quickly. Since she liked me, she advised me to go to Raciaz and gave me some names and addresses.

One of the contacts in Raciaz was an old Polish woman named Gawronska, who lived alone in a dilapidated, dirty hut. She agreed to accept us for a modest fee. We had very little money and no belongings at all. The ground burned under our feet because we could not register as residents. My false certificate was of dubious value and my mother had no papers at all. Luckily, our landlady suggested we go to an acquaintance of hers, Halina Igielska, who also lived in Raciaz. She did not suspect for a moment that I was Jewish. She felt sympathy for me, believed that I was a refugee, and thought that her sacred duty as a Pole was to help me. One thing that I learned from my stays with the Poles was that the people of the Polish intelligentsia, who were also persecuted by the Germans, showed a great deal of solidarity and disposition for mutual assistance. Halina worked in some office and did some trading. She traveled frequently to the General Government and had connections with all sorts of notables in town. She had a friend, Alicja, who worked for the municipality and promised to arrange certificates for me and my mother. I do not know how she managed it, but the fact is that by Christmas we received certificates in the name of Helena and Janina Bodek. We gave Alicja a modest gift, but it was clear that it was Halina's mediation, and not the gift, that motivated her to help us. So by the end of 1942, I started working for a living teaching Polish children clandestinely. One of my students was Halina's younger brother. Most of my pupils were children of the intelligentsia and wealthy Polish families. They would pay me with food, which was the best payment at a time in which barter trade was all over the place. Thanks to my work, I made a lot of friendly connections with people, especially with the younger generation. Through these acquaintances, I was able to get a better apartment from the housing authority. I furnished it with the help of my students' parents. The fact that I was teaching clandestinely was risky, but I could feel a lot of sympathy, especially among the families of the intelligentsia. In any case, it was impossible to feel safe. I knew that there was gossip and that among my fans and acquaintances there were suspicions that we were Jewish. On one occasion, when I was visiting a neighbor, a woman said, “Did you hear the rumors about Jewesses living in our town?” “What are you blabbering about?” I replied, but a shiver went through my body. On another occasion, my mother was called “Jewess” on the street. But it was someone from the mob that did that. The people of the intelligentsia never bothered us. I would regularly attend church and we were invited to homes for family celebrations, Easter, and Christmas. My mother could not muster herself to go to church, so the opinion was formed that she was of Jewish descent and I was her daughter from a Polish father.

Another thing that worried me was the fact that my work was illegal and I was not registered with the labor bureau. What would happen to my mother if they caught me and took me to work in Germany? Poles who did not have regular jobs were forcibly drafted and sent to work in Germany. Near the end of the war, they started to massively deport people to work in excavation. It was very hard work and many Poles would mutilate themselves to avoid it. Miraculously, I was able to escape the round-ups several times, mostly thanks to my appearance. I looked more like a child than a young girl.

That was how my mother and I spent more than two years in Raciaz under the German occupation. We went from one dangerous situation to another until the arrival of the Russians in February 1945. My moment of greatest fear was when they issued new identity cards in 1943. To get the card it was necessary to present birth certificates, which of course we did not have. We were lucky that the brother of Halina Igielska helped us. He had been a student at a religious seminary in Plock and had connections with the clergy. I explained to him that I could not go back to the General Government to get the birth certificates. Fortunately, he was able to get valid certificates that we could use to get the identity cards.

Even after the Russians entered, we did not admit that we were Jewish. I continued my relationship with my former friends and, as it turned out, doing that may have saved our lives. By the end of the war, several Jewish young men and women who had managed to survive the camps returned to Raciaz. All the survivors lived in one apartment. One night an armed gang surrounded the apartment and killed them all, even pregnant women. After this incident we decided to leave Raciaz and went to Poznan. I found an apartment and started studying at the university in the Faculty of Agronomy. I registered as a Pole under the name Helena Bodek. In 1950 I passed the final exams and graduated. A few weeks later I came to Israel with my mother. Immediately after my arrival, I got a job at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, where I still work today.

* * *

Translator's note: Helena Tzinamon-Bodek passed away in Israel in 2004. Her book of memoirs Jak Tropione Zwierzęta (Like Hunted Animals) was published in 1993 by Wydawnictwo Literackie in Krakow.


[Not included in the original book]

The Boy in the Closet

by Senek (Zelig) Rosenblum

Edited by Leon Zamosc

In May 1997, Senek (Zelig) Rosenblum was interviewed by researchers of the USC Shoah Foundation in Munich. This is an edited excerpt of his testimony, published with permission of the USC Shoah Foundation's Visual History Archive.

I was born on December 23, 1935 in Zychlin, a small town in Poland. My father was Henryk Rosenblum and my mother Fela Rosenblum, nee Czonskowski. My father was active in agriculture – he had a small mill and was a buyer of grain. We lived on the outskirts of town in a wooden house. Zychlin was a town of about 4,000 people. About half of them were Jews. It was a typical shtetl, very Jewish, and most of the business activities had to do with agricultural products.

My grandparents were very religious people, but my father already belonged to the liberal younger generation. I do not know about my mother's side of the family. I can only recall that my grandparents were both very religious and there were religious celebrations in the home.

My father was drafted into the Polish army when I was a small child, and he wasn't at home for a while. This was in 1939. From what he told me, I know that when the Germans occupied the country he fled to Romania to escape imprisonment. In the meantime, my grandparents, my mother, and I were alone.

My earliest memory is of the outbreak of war. I was three years old, but it was memorable because everyone was so agitated and there was intense bombing before the Germans arrived. I remember a group of German soldiers marching in a column. When one of them picked me up, the Polish children shouted to him, “Lord, Lord, don't carry him! He's a Jew!” So even at that early age I was aware that there were two classes in society - Poles and Jews.

I attended a religious school, a cheder, as a child. I have vague memories of it, and that we were allowed to stay in our house after the Germans arrived. Then, they took away our radio, horses, and other things. That was the first harbinger of disaster. There was terror in Zychlin after the German occupation. It wasn't like what came later, but Jewish children were removed from schools, and we were harassed in the streets by the Hitler Youth, the soldiers, and the administrators who came to the town.

After a time, my father returned and he hid with us. Life somehow became sort of normalized. We were not allowed to use the sidewalks and had to wear the yellow star. Then, we were evacuated from our home and had to go to the ghetto. The Polish and Jewish populations were separated. There were two ghettos in Zychlin. We were lucky to be in the little ghetto with the older people. Most of the town's Jews were cramped in the large ghetto, which was fenced off. The little ghetto had few houses and it wasn't fenced because the houses were in an open field, near other houses that were occupied by the German police and members of the SD (Sicherheitsdienst, the intelligence service of the SS). Escape attempts were unlikely because most of the Jews in the little ghetto were old people and the place was watched by the families of the German policemen. I lived in that small ghetto with my father and mother for two years, from the summer of 1940 to the winter of 1942. At times my maternal grandmother lived there too, and we had to share the house with other people whom I don't remember clearly.

I do remember that there was a hill in the small ghetto, with a little pond nearby. In winter, the frozen pond and the snowy hill were ideal for sledding and sliding down. The hill was a magnet for us children, but it was also a magnet for the children of the German policemen. They came into the ghetto to play with us - the lousy, seedy, half-starved Jewish boys. Looking back, it is almost unbelievable! The German children had all the equipment - sleighs, everything. For the first time in my life, I saw skis. They smelled good because their mothers smeared them with cream as protection against the frost. At first, they were reluctant to play with us, but they got used to us and we got used to them. And we played together as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Now and then, they brought us crisp bread and the Wehrmacht biscuits that were popular among the soldiers. Our parents never told us not to play with the German children. They would not have dared. We treated the German children like raw eggs - very carefully. We were very scared of their fathers. But, as I said, we got used to them, probably out of our youthful ignorance -- until the Germans started their aktionen against the Jews and everything was over.

In the ghetto, our freedom of movement was totally restricted. Some people, mostly youngsters, managed to get out of the ghetto to buy things, such as food and medicines. But this was forbidden and when they were caught, they were taken to the commandant's office where they were horribly beaten. As special punishment, their faces were painted with black tar. They were then sent back to the ghetto, which created quite a stir. Having so few resources in the ghetto, we were unable to clean the tar on their faces – it took weeks before the tar could be removed.

There were various German aktionen. I remember one in which young men aged twenty to twenty-five were picked up. In another operation, they rounded up men and boys as young as fourteen. The mothers put themselves between the SD and their children. Men ran the risk of being shot immediately if they protested, but they believed that as women they would be spared. So there were terrible scenes of teenagers being torn from their mothers. One of the most striking scenes was when the Rebetzen ran out into the market square and screamed in Yiddish calling her son, “Gott'n nu schesi?” “Where are you?”

There was no synagogue in the small ghetto. I don't know if there were services in the town's main synagogue, but I do recall that religious celebrations at home continued to take place, even under the most adverse circumstances. I can remember that the little ghetto had a small cheder, but some children never showed up and others attended irregularly. At the time, there was already great hunger, and the children were plagued by disease. In autumn 1942, after the first German aktionen, no one was allowed to attend schools anymore and the members of the Council of Elders and the Judenrat were no longer allowed to leave the ghetto. If they were caught trying to leave the ghetto, people were no longer beaten or painted with tar at headquarters - at this point they were just put against the wall and shot.

Between 1940 and 1942, my father was involved with the Judenrat. He could speak some German, so he was kind of a liaison between the Judenrat and the German police. He had a brisk demeanor - he wasn't the typical frightened Jew. He had a way of calmly dealing with the German police, which was somehow recognized by the other side. And he also had, so to speak, a free ticket to get out of the ghetto. He made grain deliveries and purchased supplies for the ghetto. Of course, I didn't know the details, but I generally remember that he could get in and out of the ghetto and the German headquarters. He was committed to help improve ghetto life.

My father saved my life as a result of his interactions with the Germans, his knowledge of the area and his business with local famers. In his later years, he told me that he got a tip from a German police officer that there would be aktionen against the ghetto and the population would be destroyed. With that knowledge, he prepared for our escape.

When the military operation against the ghetto began in the winter of 1942, a farmer friend of my father's provided us a horse-drawn sleigh. The sleigh had been allowed into the ghetto to deliver grain and our family used it to escape. I remember that my grandmother dressed me in layers that I wouldn't normally wear. We also took clothes with us, everything that we could carry. I wanted to bring my rocking horse with me, it was my favorite toy. I had to be dragged away forcefully from that rocking horse. As a child, I probably didn't realize the situation we were in, but my parents did.

The day we left was very cold. My father carried me and the man driving the sleigh told us to hurry. He was uneasy because he would have been in deep trouble if caught smuggling Jews out of the ghetto. We were taken to a farm and then urged to move on late the next day. After that, we no longer had the sleigh and we started on a gruesome, arduous odyssey with my old grandmother and my mother, who already had severe kidney disease. We dragged ourselves to another farm.

My father planned to cross the border that the Germans had drawn between the Reich and Poland's General Government. Crossing the border was forbidden under pain of death. His goal was to get to Warsaw by train. He thought that the Warsaw ghetto, with its huge Jewish population – up to half a million – would be safe. It was a bold undertaking because we had to cross 140 kilometers in winter. My father hired someone who knew his way around, a local, to take us over the border. I can still remember that march, which started at night. The guide, dressed in white like a soldier on maneuvers, led our little group. At some point, he thought that the border guards had discovered us. He hid in a hollow and suddenly we were alone, unsure of where we were.

It was an extremely precarious situation. Exhausted, we managed to reach a farm where the farmer hid us in a barn. My mother said she just couldn't go any further, and that she wouldn't leave her mother either. She begged my father to continue with me, convinced that she wouldn't survive. It was a tragic night in that barn – my mother insisting that we should go on, and my father refusing to leave her. They argued for hours, until my father finally decided that we would continue without her. She and my grandmother allowed themselves to be captured. They ended up back in the ghetto and were wiped out along with the other women, children and old men. Years later, some Poles told me that she was last seen being deported to the gas vans with her mother. And that was it.

My father and I went on alone for weeks across the snowy, dreadful countryside, until we finally made it to Warsaw. We arrived in Warsaw in late December 1942. For me, it was a memorable day. Everything was new and different. In Zychlin, I had only seen horse-drawn carriages and carts. In Warsaw, there were brightly colored trams with bells. It was so impressive that I just forgot the danger we were in.

We stayed with relatives who were already living in Warsaw ghetto. The living conditions were terrible. We were all crammed together in a small apartment on Nalewki Street with other people. It was just horrible, not only because was there hardly any food and many were sick, but also because there were daily quarrels among those who shared the tiny rooms. Our daily life focused on those arguments and how to get food.

When you met people you knew on the street, they acted like it was the last time they were seeing you. People behaved like hunted animals because of the permanent German aktionen. Today, when I see pictures of the Warsaw ghetto, I see the same things that I witnessed back then. It is hard to describe now, but the images show exactly how it was – completely rundown characters walking down the streets, begging for something to eat.

Coming from a rural town, I had been used to fresh air. Suddenly, there was this bestial smell of so many people crammed together in the ghetto. There was simply no waste disposal or anything like that. They sprinkled something on the waste to prevent the spreading of diseases. The smell of those chemicals haunts my memory to this day.

I don't remember ever asking my father why I had to be there in the ghetto. But it was the result of the two-class society in which we were living in Poland – here are the Jews, and there are the Poles. I instinctively knew that I wasn't a Christian, that I was a Jew. And from the very first moment that the Poles attacked us, I also knew that I belonged to a minority, to the underdogs. This runs like a thread through my childhood.

At some point, my father understood that the Warsaw ghetto would also come to an end. He got in touch with someone in the Judenrat. They didn't want to believe that the Germans would dare to annihilate the mass of people in the Warsaw ghetto. But my father, knowing what had happened in Zychlin and in Kutno, was certain that there would be a systematic annihilation.

During this time, my father was in top form. He bribed the Ukrainian and Lithuanian guards and traded with the Poles over the ghetto wall, exchanging watches and rings for food, mostly fruit. And knowing what was going to happen in the ghetto, he made arrangements with a woman with whom he traded - when the time came, he would hand me over to her and she would hide me.

In the spring of 1943, the first of the big aktionen took place. There was terrible unrest among the ghetto residents. We didn't know: was this the final extermination operation or not? And more and more often, people were shot openly on the street. The streets were full of people, and I remember scenes of the crowds tried to escape in a panic. There were always rumors that there was a hole or passage where you could get out of the ghetto. I went to one of those places with my father, but the guards had already closed the path to escape. Like drowning people, we ran from one part of the ghetto to another. It was like being on a sinking ship.

While my father was preparing for my escape, he found out that there was a courthouse that had access from both the ghetto and from the so-called Aryan side. One day, he took me calmly past the Germans guarding this building. I remember that on the other side of the street there was shooting. The guards were distracted and my father took my hand and led me in. A Polish man was waiting for us inside. We exited the building on the Polish side. The man took me to an apartment where I stayed for weeks with other persecuted people. There were twenty people in the apartment. We barely moved during the day, crawling on our stomachs to avoid being seen through the window.

My father was only sporadically in the apartment. He went in and out of the ghetto and he got other people out. Based on what he testified after the war, he smuggled at least thirty more people who are still alive today. It was an enormous danger for him to go back into the ghetto again. But as I mentioned before, he did exceptional things during that period of his life. He seemed born for such a situation, with his finger on the pulse of what was happening.

Then one day, my father didn't go back to the ghetto. I think that it was when the Jewish uprising broke out. That sunny spring morning I left the apartment with my father. We went to a market, where a young woman approached us. He said, “This is your new aunt. You are going with her and I'll visit you.” I already knew that things were a matter of life and death. I couldn't contradict him like a normal child saying, “I don't want to go with a stranger.” The woman took me to the western part of the city, to a street named Groutschewska. I remember that very well.

This woman was the daughter of the lady with whom my father had traded over the ghetto wall. She was recently married. We went to her apartment, which was small but clean. Everything smelled completely different from the ghetto. She took off my clothes, washed me, and put me in a clean bed. During the day, she would hid me in a closet where I had to sit in a camouflaged section. That was my hiding place for the next eleven months. I sat there every day in utter silence. I had no toys, nothing at all. Only at night did she or her husband, a truck driver, let me out. The toilet for the apartment was communal, and nobody was supposed to know that someone was hidden there. She took me out at night to use the toilet. Over time, I became so weak that I couldn't stand alone, so she had to carry me.

This woman taught me to speak perfect Polish. Like most Jews of the small towns, my family spoke a mixture of Yiddish and accented Polish, which identified me as a Jew. The woman was very religious. I heard her singing Polish religious songs while I was hiding in the closet. She taught me Polish prayers and when she took me out of the closet at night she kept telling me that I had to kneel down in front of the bed and pray. She would say to me, “if you pray to the holy Mother of God every day, or better yet twice a day, you will survive the war.” So I prayed.

The woman was very good to me despite the troubles I caused. Because of the loss of my mother, and seeing my father only sporadically, I started wetting the bed. Today, psychologists study the underlying causes of bed wetting, but at that time people didn't take circumstances into account. The woman was constantly changing the bed linens and there was no washing machine. Initially, she punished me for wetting the bed. But no punishment would solve it, and somehow she understood that.

I was often alone in the apartment during the day. It had been drilled into me again and again that I had to sit in the closet and make no noise, similar to Anne Frank's family in hiding. But I was alone - my only human contact was with the woman in the evening. Every few weeks my father would come to visit, and sometimes I made a scene trying to keep him from leaving.

My father passed as a Pole. He adopted the personality of a Polish officer who had fled from captivity. He wore good clothes and fashionable boots, and the Poles respected him. He spoke to the woman in the third person, which was common at the time when someone of a higher class spoke to others. He used that tactic to perfection and that helped him to survive. He brought his personality to bear in his dealings with the woman and he also paid her to compensate for hiding a Jewish child, which was forbidden under pain of death.

The worst part of my time in the apartment was when the Russians started bombing Warsaw. The apartment was on the third floor. When the bombs hit, everyone ran into the basement, leaving the windows open so that the air pressure of the explosions would not damage them. Nobody was supposed to know that a Jewish child was hidden there, so I had to stay upstairs during the raids. That was a terrible experience – everyone was in the basement and I was up there alone. Most of the bombing was at night, so the woman would open the closet and I sat in the apartment looking out of the window. The planes would first drop parachute flares that lit up the whole area with a pale, eerie light. Then came the bombers. It was incredibly scary the first couple of times, looking out at the whole inferno, fearing I would die. You have to imagine a little boy of six or seven sitting alone in a house with no one in sight. I had a harrowing feeling of loneliness, coupled with fear. The third or fourth time I just felt fear because many houses were destroyed. But there was also a dash of curiosity, which helped me overcome my fear.

Eventually, the neighbors found out that the woman, whose name was Irka Rudkowska, was hiding a Jewish child in her apartment. She couldn't conceal my trips to the communal toilet indefinitely. Someone discovered me and they told the young woman that they would denounce her to the Gestapo if I stayed there. She started to panic and her husband urged her to get me out of the apartment.

At that point, my father looked desperately for somewhere I could stay. He knew a farmer about 40 kilometers from Warsaw and he took me to his farm in early 1944. I was wise enough to know what was happening, and to do exactly as my father directed. I stayed on the farm for about two months.

It was a positive time. I felt relieved after my confinement in the closet and the horror of the night bombings. I will never forget the freedom I felt. I was suddenly out of my cage, on a farm with cows and horses (which I especially loved) where I could just frolic around freely, playing with the farmer's children. But it wasn't possible for me to stay with the farmer and his family. The farmer couldn't use me as a farmhand, he had enough children of his own.

Eventually my father found a place for me with another woman in the Praga district of Warsaw, on the eastern side of the Vistula River. I went there in the early summer of 1944. The lady was a Polish widow with a four-year-old girl and made her living doing laundry for other people. She wasn't particularly good to me. She made me feel that when my father didn't come on time to deliver her payment. At that time, the Polish uprising broke out in Warsaw and my father stopped coming altogether. The woman treated me very badly. She drove me out a number of times, so I had to stay overnight with other families. As the front was getting closer, the Germans drove all the farmers out of the area and reassembled them as groups of refugees. The woman wanted me to move in with those people.

I continued to pretend that I was a Polish boy who had lost his father and mother and was taken in by the woman. With the Polish uprising, the whole food supply collapsed. A terrible famine broke out. The woman made me go to the villages and beg the farmers for food. For a few months, I was the only source of food for the woman, at the age of eight. Nonetheless, she cursed me because my father didn't come to pay her. She became more and more rabid and wanted to cast me out. She partially did that.

I was always longing for my father. But in the chaos that prevailed at the time, I was just one of thousands of orphaned children. Then came the bad days when the district was conquered by the Red Army. There was constant artillery fire and the building's residents were sitting in the basement during the siege. I was the only one without a parent. Someone had to go fetch water, and I had no protector. Collecting water was not just dangerous - it was a likely death sentence because whoever went up there had a fifty percent chance of not making it. I was always the one who was forced out of the cellar to get water. But I had a guardian angel - I always came back with water.

I saw my liberator, a Russian soldier, on one of those trips to get water. He was among the advance personnel who laid the telephone cables for the front line and he scolded me for tripping over some wires. I knew he wore a different uniform, not the gray of the Germans. I was no longer afraid. When he scolded me, it felt like freedom. I became friends with the Russians when they took up their quarters. I was a kind of mascot for them.

During one siege, I was especially lucky. The woman was away and I was alone in the basement with the other residents. They sent me to fetch the water again. When I came back, the house was no longer standing and everyone in the cellar was dead. Seeing the ruins of the house, I went to the woman's sister, who lived a few doors away. I kept hanging around in the hope that when my father came back he would find me there.

At this point, there was nothing to eat. The Russian soldiers themselves were starving. We began to go out to the countryside looking for food. There were three or four of us children in the group. There were minefields to left and right, but there were potatoes in those minefields. The adults didn't dare go into the fields, but they told us children that it was harmless to go dig for potatoes. We went in to gather the potatoes and one of us was just torn apart. In the end, I was the only one who survived. The other child starved to death.

We kept going further and further looking for food. One day I was dragging myself along alone, completely exhausted. I was so weak that I couldn't make it back. I sat down on a railway embankment to die. I was already in a state of delirium, between this world and the hereafter. Then a woman came up to me from afar. She was dressed peasant style, wrapped up in a cloth and she stopped in front of me. I asked in Polish, “Niech bedzie pochwalony Jezus Chrystus” (Praise be to Jesus Christ), would you have a piece of bread for me? “And the unbelievable occurs – she takes out a loaf of bread, breaks off a piece and gives it to me. Who had a loaf of bread at that point? Nobody, nobody. But it happened. I ate the bread and after a few hours was able to drag myself back. Somehow the days went by. Then the Red Cross offered soup and other foods. About half a year passed.

The front was right there -- the Russians on the edge of the Vistula, waiting for the Germans to crush the Polish uprising. I fraternized with the Russian soldiers, feeling the joy of not being afraid. The fear of death, the fear of being pursued by someone who is trying to kill you, can't be compared to anything else. When that's gone, you feel like you've got your life back somehow.

One day the front started moving. The Russians crossed the Vistula and liberated Warsaw. In less than a week, my father arrived. Amazingly, he was well dressed, well fed. However, little things could upset him. Maybe the passage of time made him weary. Outwardly, he was the same man, but probably he was broken in some ways too. When he arrived, he had money. And the woman's whole attitude toward me suddenly changed. He got us a room and arranged for me to sleep in a bed. He even got a doctor. Later, he told me that when he found me, I looked like an old man. If he hadn't arrived, it was only a matter of time, maybe weeks, and it would have been over for me. There was something wrong with my lungs. The doctor arranged hot baths for me. He also treated me for my bedwetting. And soon my suffering was gone. My father went away and came back after two or three days. He brought me clothes to replace the rotten ones I had been wearing. Then he took me with him. I remember that we drove through a tattered Warsaw. There were corpses everywhere, mostly fallen Germans. The dead Russian and Polish soldiers and civilians were taken away and buried. But not the Germans. You could see they were Germans by their uniforms. They had no shoes, socks, or hats, just their uniforms. Nobody wanted to touch a German uniform. They were the Poles' mortal enemy.

My father and I followed the front for weeks. We wanted to go back to our town. Then my father found his brother-in-law, who had also lost his whole family. He was our only surviving family member in Poland, this uncle, who passed away in the 1980s. He had been living in Radom, passing as a Pole. We stayed with him in Radom for a few weeks and then we again followed the front with my uncle, a horse, and a covered wagon loaded with boxes until we arrived in Kutno, a large town near Zychlin. There, my father got an apartment as inheritance from an uncle who had been living in America for decades. In Zychlin, there was nothing left, so we stayed in Kutno, where we had that apartment, food, clothing, and school. I attended a Polish school there for the first time in my life.

I clearly remember the day the Germans surrendered. We still were fearful that the Germans would come back. That day, May 8 or 9, 1945 was one of the highlights of my life. I can remember it exactly. The whole populace was on its feet, soldiers shot their guns in the air. Everything was tremendously joyful and exuberant. We were in Kutno at the time. It was an event that all of Europe, and perhaps all of humanity, had been waiting for.

* * *

Editor's note: In Kutno, Senek's father Henryk Rosenblum married a woman from Zychlin who had also survived the war. After crossing the border as refugees , the family settled in Germany. As a young man, Senek spent some time in the United States. He returned to Germany in the mid-1960s. Since then, he has been living in Munich, where he built a family and established a small business. His book of memoirs Der Junge im Schrank: eine Kindheit im Krieg (The Boy in the Closet: a Childhood at War) was published in 2009 by Verlag Btb Taschenbuch in Munich.

 

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