Translation edited by Lisa Newman
I was born in Katowice in 1917, and came to Israel from Szlezia in September 1950. During the war, I was in Russia for five years, suffered in prison and in a concentration camp; after the war I returned to Poland, but couldn't find any survivors of my family.
When I returned to Poland in April, 1946 I couldn't enter our house because strangers were squatting in it. I lived with my sister-in-law in her house on Jordana Street until December. She was a good Christian, who took care of her Jewish husband and their children. When they were locked in the ghetto she smuggled them food and medicines. After she was expelled from her house, she stayed at her parents' with her children.
As I stood in front of her closed house, I howled the traditional mountain shepherds' cry, that was our family's identifying call. My sister- in-law couldn't believe her ears at first, and thought she was imagining it. She was sure that she and her children were the only ones left, and that I had been murdered in Russia. I was very skinny when I got to her, and she took care of me devotedly. In the meanwhile I started trying to locate any remaining property of my family. I went to our old house, accompanied by an inspector with a list of all of our belongings, but the family residing there would not let me in. The current resident asked me what kind of fabric covered the sofas, and I said I didn't remember. She said it's impossible to forget something like that, so I told her that if she had been through what I had, she wouldn't have remembered even her own name. I took all of our belongings from the apartment, but let the family stay there. I wasn't planning on staying in Katowice anyway. From Katowice I travelled to a sanitarium near Walenberg, where I caught a fever that damaged my lungs. I stayed there from 1946 till 1950, when I got married and moved to Israel.
As a child I attended a German school with kids aged six to sixteen, where Jewish students were treated equally. I was a good athlete, and won second place in the national swimming championship. I was also a member of the Bar Kochva team, My hair was blond; I always wore my star of David, and people usually found it hard to believe that I was Jewish.
We were eight brothers and sisters. Only three of us survived the war. Our economic status was fair. My mother owned a meat factory and a store that were rather profitable. My father died on the day I was born. He never had the chance to see me, because I was born in the evening. My mother died in April, 1939 of a sudden heart attack. She was like two parents for us. I mourned her death greatly, but often said afterwards that it was better for her not to have gone through Hitler's hell.
I spent the war years in Russia. I was caught by the Russians when I crossed the border with eight other people. I was 23 years old. My money was taken from me, and I spent the first night in the train station. That night I dreamt about my mother. In the dream, she promised me that everything would be fine and that I shouldn't worry. She said that everything that happened was for the better.
We were constantly moved from place to place until I was brought to the first camp. The temperature was 30-40 degrees below zero, freezing cold. I worked with the men, and we chopped wood. The Russians claimed it was an easy chore. From there I was transferred to another camp in the district, where the conditions were slightly better. In this camp I worked sewing coats for the Red Army, 2,000 pieces a day.
All of the ex-Polish citizens were released in 1941. I continued to work in different jobs and lived with a woman who was married to a German poet. The winter in Russia was rough, and I thought that I would never leave the camp.
One night I was on shift with a Georgian woman. After we finished work I fell asleep on the table, despite my fear of the rats. In the middle of the night I woke up and said: Tamara, you know I'm about to get out of here. She thought I was out of my mind. Yes, I said, In my dream I saw my sister; she was holding a lock and I saw it unlock.. Seven days after the dream, I was released. I was suddenly alone in Russia, carrying only a small wooden suitcase. I took the train to see my only surviving friend. My luggage was inspected closely on the way. I had a list of addresses abroad, which I had to destroy. I would have gotten arrested again, if they had found it.
I had two wishes when the war ended: to visit my parents' grave, and to sit by a table covered with bread and eat until I had enough. Until this day, there must always be enough bread in my house, or the horrible feeling of starvation comes back to me.
I came to Israel on the ship Komemiyut. It was very crowded, there wasn't enough food and the trip took weeks. During the sailing I got ill. When we finally arrived, I was disappointed. I somehow expected more. I got to Shaar Aliyah, from there moved to Atlit, and finally stayed with my husband at my aunt's house in Ramat Hadar. We arrived emptyhanded, as we weren't allowed to take any property out of Poland.
I still suffer from nightmares. I don't want any contact with the German people. I suffered through a very rough decade- six and a half years and Russia, three and a half in sanitariums trying to heal. I would really like to forget these years, as if they had never happened.
Translation edited by Lisa Newman
I was born in Germany in 1922 to a family of six, but we lived in Katowice prior to the war. My parents' family was never religious, but we celebrated the holidays, and my father would occasionally go to the synagogue. I was a member of the Zionist Youth and Akiva groups, and went to camps in the mountains every summer. It was important for my parents that I be a part of a youth group. I attended the Jewish elementary school, and then the Polish high school.
My father always wanted to make aliyah to Israel, but we never had the money. When the war broke out, our family escaped to Sosnowiec, where we stayed with my father's family, who were religious. This branch of the family was all killed. My father had four brothers and two sisters. My mother had three sisters. Except for a few who left Poland before the war, they were all murdered.
One day, I decided to run away with my father and my brother, who was a year and a half older than me. I was 17. We escaped to Lwow, which was then governed by the Russians. We lived there for a short time. I managed to cross the border to Wilna illegally with a group of people from Akiva. I stayed in a commune in Wilna for a year and a half. One day, I received a letter from home that informed me of my brother's death. I returned to Lwow. There I learned that my brother committed suicide. He was 18 and a half years old at his death.
A month later, a war broke out between Russia and Germany. The Germans took us out of our houses and imprisoned us in a facility on Lackiego Street. We were a group of about 2,000, and the Ukrainian guards beat the men hard. We spent the night there, standing on our feet. I risked myself and searched for my father, whom I found the next morning. The Germans started to make lists of names, and it was quite obvious they were sending people to their death, but I was released right after they wrote my name. I may have been saved because on the report card from school that I presented with my documentation, Germany was listed as my country of birth.
|Natan Bajtner, so of Herman Zwi Bajtner
Died in the Holocaust in 1941
|Father of Irena Wygodzkii, Herman Bajtner
Died in the Holocaust in 1941
I was released with two other young women. All the others were murdered in the woods near Lwow. My father was among them.
I was left with no means of supporting myself, and so volunteered to work for the Germans at the laundry. I worked in extremely hard conditions, and in hunger. When I heard that a ghetto was being closed, I escaped to my mother, who was left on the German side of Sosnowic. I was caught while crossing the border, but thanks to my non-Jewish appearance the guard believed me when I told him that I was Polish and was looking for a friend. He let me go. After many tribulations I got to my mother's house, where both of my younger sisters were waiting for me. In a month, we got hold of fake identification cards, but the forgery was discovered by the Germans.
Some of the Jews were taken to Auschwitz around that time, but I was sent to a labor camp that was later made into a death camp. It was located in Czechoslovakia. I arrived there In February, 1942, and was there for three and a half years, until we were released in May, 1945.
In 1943, I managed to bring my mother and sisters, who were 10 and 13 years old, to my camp. This way they all managed to survive. There was a thread factory in the camp. The work was exhausting, and the shifts were all day long. When the SS officers came, the place was turned into a concentration camp. The weaker women were sent to Auschwitz. Dr. Mengele's visit was a tough experience. During his visit, the girls had to fully undress and pass in a line in front of the SS. At the time I didn't yet know what was happening in Auschwitz. I was in the camp until the end of the war in May, 1945.
After the war we lived in Germany, where I met my husband, the writer and poet Stanislaw Jehosza Wygodzki. We got married and returned to Poland, where we lived until 1968. Then we moved to Israel.
There was a beautiful great synagogue in Katowice. Young people aged 9 to 17 would gather and participate in youth group activities, including lectures, Hebrew classes and even dances. I remember the Yiddish theater, featuring Ida Kaminski, coming to perform in town. I also remember Janosz Korczak's visit, and the lecture he gave, titled How to Love a Child.
Cila Katriel Hoppen
Translation edited by Lisa Newman
The beautiful, relatively calm life of Katowice Jews came to an end in the summer of 1939, when the war broke out and the German army invaded Poland. Katowice, a Polish border city was conquered early, on September 1, 1939. Most of the population were German-speaking Volks Deutsche, who identified with the Germans rather than with the Poles.
Suspense started to rise several weeks before the invasion. First German citizens were seen crossing the border back to Germany on a daily basis. They usually left quietly, at night, and in their rush left behind many items that were later found in the courtyards. Suddenly, people started to use Heil Hitler as a greeting, instead of the Polish for Hello. Other residents started to flee as well. Trains, loaded with escaping people were traveling into the depth of the Polish mainland in an attempt to escape to Nazi beast.
on the way to the concentration camp, from which he never returned. 10 April 1943
My parents were caught in the general panic, and a week before the invasion decided to temporarily move to Zaglembie, to the town of Slawkow, inhabited mostly by Jews. We packed only the most necessary items. My mother, two brothers- Bernard and Yehuda- and I travelled to Slawkow and rented a small apartment from a Jewish family. My father Szmuel Hoppen, who was a community clerk, returned to Katowice to fill his duty until the very last minute.
On September 1, when the Germans entered, my father left Katowice with my older brother Bernard, but they didn't make it very far. The Germans got to them on Rosh Hashana (new year's eve), and they were returned to town by Yom Kippur. No one went to the synagogue to pray with the community that year. My mother lit the candles, and we started to pray. When my father read Kol Nidrei he started to cry. He was already sensing the terrible future that was to come.
When things got a little calmer, I returned to Katowice with my mother to collect the rest of our belongings. Our house, like the rest of the Jews' houses, was sealed; it took us a few days to receive permission to open it. The house was a mess, most of the things were stolen, and my father's precious collection of ancient scriptures was scattered on the floor. Not even one book was left in one piece. Things weren't different at the community hall's basement. Hundreds of Jewish books that were brought from the synagogue were thrown in there, torn and ruined.
In October 1939, during our time back in Katowice, I was a witness to the burning of the great synagogue, and I saw it being completely destroyed. I was standing at the city square, not far from where this tragic event took place, and my heart was crying. The sacred place of my childhood, that I had so many memories of, was burned to dust.
In November we returned to Slawkow and lived there in terrible conditions until 1942. All this time, the Germans were making Jews' lives harder and harder. Jewish families were restricted to only two streets, and weren't allowed out of their homes in the evenings. We had to wear the yellow star of David badge on our clothes. The local Jewish population had somehow managed to get along in this situation, but we, the foreign families, soon started to suffer from hunger and our lives became unbearable. The Germans had already started to send Jews to Labor camps, but we found out that none of them were returning, and realized that they weren't being sent to work. Great fear and uncertainty about the future got hold of us and these were added to the hunger we were suffering.
One morning around the end of May 1942, the call alle Juden Raus! ('all Jews outside!') was heard on the streets. We were taken to a large courtyard and were kept there until the evening, when the selection started. Young people aged 16-35 were taken to work in the nearby town, among them me and my brother Bernard. Old and sick people, as well as mothers with children were put in train cars after two days, and taken straight to the death camps in Auschwitz.
I heard about my parents' and younger brother's fates from a survivor who witnessed the banishment. My father was still free, and tried hard to release them. When he realized he couldn't save them, he joined them on the train to Auschwitz at the last minute, saying that his wife was weak and he had to take care of her and their child. The German mayor, who knew my father personally, was there too and remarked, Das ist ein heldisher Jude!. My brother Bernard and I reached Strzemieszyce with no belongings. We were left homeless and starving. We were forced to work at the Skopek heavy industry shop. I worked night shifts there and used my extra time to catch some sleep in the shop near the fire. In the daytime we walked around the streets. We had nowhere to stay or to wash ourselves. Our heads and clothes were full of lice, and it took me much effort to get rid of them.
In 1943, a year after Slawkow was cleared, there was another selection in Strzemieszyce, during which I was separated from my brother. He was sent to concentration camp in Szlezia, and died on a death march near the end of 1944.
I was sent to a camp in Ottmuth, where there were about 100 young women from Steszmiszice.
I remember well two different incidents from the selection. A beautiful young woman stood right next to me. She was an engineer's wife, and when she saw her crying baby girl put with her grandmother on a truck that was going to Auschwitz, she started to run after the truck, shouting to her husband: I love you and I'll never forget you, but I have to be with our baby. She joined her baby and they were both murdered in Auschwitz. There was also the opposite: a woman stood next to us with her sisters-in-law and her little girl between them. A German soldier noticed the girl, and asked who she was with. All of these women, including her mother, denied any connection to her!
After a year of forced labor in Ottmuth we were relocated to the Ludwigsdorf camp, to work in a munitions factory. On May 8, 1945 we were finally liberated by the Soviet army. I was a walking skeleton, at the very end of my physical and mental strength. Not one of my family had been spared. I was released from the camp an orphan with no one, a young girl of less than 20, all alone in the world. It was after the war that I started my own personal war of existence...
Written on Liberation Day, the 8th May 1945
Translation edited by Lisa Newman
|Today, September of 1989 in Israel,
and yesterday, 50 years ago- the flood.
There was life before it, I swear
With all my might and as long as I'm alive
Letters of fire are curved on my heart, remembering
A life of holiness and devotion, a life of love and hope,
A life of daily worries and tradition, of celebrations and holidays.
Family, father, mother and brothers, grandparents and uncles,
all of this once was, I swear.
And I am not a monster, or an alien from space
I am a living survivor,
a remaining shred of a magnificent community
in Poland, that was named Katowice.
A full world, bubbling life, it was all erased,
destroyed, it is all over.
I am but a small remnant, and in their name I swore to remember.
A man comes from ashes, and to ashes he shall return a closed circle,
but my circle is broken,
My past was stolen from me,
my life was robbed...
And as long as I breathe I will not cease
to collect, reconstruct, miss and tell,
chase the other end of the circle.
|22 Sep. 1989
|If you have lost your father, you find comfort in your mother.
If you have lost your parents, you have brother-orphans,
still a family.
But if you were left all by yourself after the great destruction,
then who are you? Where are you? What's left?
The beast let me out all alone,
loss and extinction all around me,
the will to live was my only hope.
How can I forget after I saw my house demolished,
my people gone:
Is there a heart that can understand my loss?
And then to gamble with fate, straighten you back again and march,
march forward and rebuild everything,
from the beginning.
Keep your head up and look into the distance,
to the wide horizon.
reach out your hand for tomorrow's morning,
walk in the rain of a chilly evening,
climb mountains and stumble upon life's tribulations,
and never give up, because I must survive
as a symbol, a witness, a reminder forever more.
|Rosh Hashana, 1 Oct. 1989
Dr. Leon Chameides
Translation edited by Lisa Newman
In the fall of 1939, when war was drawing near, our family (My father, Rav Kalman Chameides, my mother Gertrude my seven year old brother Herbert and I) left Katowice and traveled east, to districts that were under Soviet control. We first got to Tarnow and then to Szczyzec, a small village south of Lwow in which my father was born and where my grandparents still resided. Life there was rather difficult. We tried without success to get visas to the west. In a 1940 letter to England, my father wrote: You mustn't keep quiet! Truda needs to recover again, I'm not exaggerating. Please help us!. My mother wrote: Thank goodness, so far we haven't suffered from hunger. As if knowing worse, my father added at the end of his letter Hoping to see you soon. During the Soviet conquest, my father worked at Lwow's Jewish community management, and could only see us every once in a while.
The Germans attacked the USSR on June 22, 1941, and entered Lwow on July 1. The streets were in total chaos between these dates. The Ukrainians started riots against the Jews, which included beating, raiding and murder. During one of these attacks we were gathered at the city square, where Jews were forced to wash the brick pavement with tooth brushes. Mother, Herbert and I were lucky enough to hide in the basement of a house nearby. Unfortunately, we were discovered after a short while in the dark. When we came out of the basement, I looked at my mother and it was the first time I ever saw her without her wig. When we were finally allowed to go home, we found grandmother bruised and beaten, with most of her teeth missing. She was proud that the Ukrainians murderers hadn't succeeded in banishing her from her home.
After the German invasion, ghettos were set up in all the cities, and we started to hear the adults' concerned talks of atrocities on a larger scale, and of exile. The word transport sounded dangerous. One day, a scared, bleeding girl, who later turned out to be a relative of ours, came running into our house. She told an unbelievable story of banishment, transports and death. I remember her sitting surrounded by family in grandmother's kitchen that was clean and ready for Passover, Her eyes were huge, and her body was covered with bloody scratches she got when she jumped off a train that passed near our town. Fortunately, the guards didn't catch her.
Around mid 1941 we joined my father in Lwow, where the Germans Administrated the Jewish community and put together a Judenrat committee. My father and some other important Rabbis were the religious department. A little is known about the arguments that must have been within the Judenrat. At any rate, the members of the religious department are documented to have gone to see the head of the council, Dr. Landsberg, and warned him that cooperation with the Nazis, if it meant choosing which Jews would be sent to death, is forbidden by Jewish law.
Ghetto life became less and less bearable and increasingly dangerous, and by the middle of 1942 the extinction of our community became a likely possibility. In this desperate time, the religious department decided to ask for an interview with Lwow's Catholic Church's archibishop, Andrias Szepticki. The purpose of this interview was to check whether he was willing to keep several hundred Torah scrolls until the end of the war. The archbishop, a kind friend of the Jewish people, had expressed his kindness even before the war He was researching the Hebrew language, and sometimes sent food to needy Jews before Passover.
The meeting between the archibishop and the Rabbis Chameides and Kahana was held on August 14, 1942, and rumors of an upcoming Aktion were being heard. The archibishop agreed to keep the scrolls if they were brought to him, which proved impossible. The Rabbis asked whether the church was willing to hide a few children as well.
After consulting with his brother, the monastery father Clement Szepticki, and his sister Josefa, he agreed to hide a number of Jewish girls, thus putting himself at great risk. Boys were more likely to be discovered and it was too dangerous to hide them. After more debating, the archibishop finally agreed to hide several boys as well, including my brother Herbert and me. I do not know the total number of children hidden; Philip Friedman claims that 150 children were hidden, but he does not state his source. When I asked him about it years later, even Rabbi Kahana didn't know the actual number. Personally, I only knew of eight children: my brother, Rabbi Kahana's two boys, Oded Amerant who now lives in Tel Aviv, Adam Rotfeld who now lives in Stockholm, Rabbi Yechezkel Lewin's two sons and myself.
Thanks to this meeting with the archibishop, I was spared. We were children when our parents sensed that the danger was drawing near, and put us in an ark, hoping that at least we would survive the great flood. We were doomed to be the last eye witnesses to our people's gravest tragedy.
I remember the journey outside the walls on our way to the ark- to the house of the metropolit that was next to St. George's baroque cathedral - similiar to how the journey to Mount Moriah must have been, for Isaac. And Isaac said to his father... Here are the fire and the woods, but where is a lamb to sacrifice?. We didn't ask too many questions; the answers were known to us. We were young, but we had already seen our parents fighting their fears and struggling with the reaper. And Abraham looked, and saw a ram held in the bushes by his horns. We ourselves searched, but unfortunately there was no ram. God must have been busy elsewhere at the time, and must have looked away from our corner of the world.
We were led into an impressive library loaded with books, into another world. In sharp contrast to everything we were used to, it was a world of beauty, peace and quiet I can hardly remember the archibishop, an elderly man in a wheelchair. I burst out crying when I said goodbye to my father, and he handed me a handkerchief that was to become my last concrete connection to my past. Herbert and I were first taken to the church's orphanage, where I got very sick. I had fever and hallucinations, and was infested with lice. We were then separated, so that we wouldn't accidentally give each other away. I was taken to a monastery in Ugnev.
And as the water carried the ark, we learned that our ability to survive depends on adjusting and keeping a secret. We instantly had to adjust to new names, a new language, a new belief and new rules of behaviour. We hid ourselves behind a thin curtain of deviance. With time, the curtain grew thicker, and limits became so blurred it was hard to tell the outside from the real us inside. We learned to hide our bodies and emotions. We learned to mute our cries and swallow our tears. Brother Marko, who was very kind and patient with me, taught me my new name, Lewko Chaminski on our way to Ugnev. He taught me the basics of the Ukrainian language, the important prayers, and warned me never to wash with other children. It was important that I never mention my parents, past or people.
Ugnev was the church's main monastery, and a number of children lived there, among them two other Jewish boys, Oded Amerant and Daniel Adam Rotfeld. The monastery had a farm that produced everything we needed, so we all got to work in the fields: picking fruit, taking care of horses, sheep and cows, peeling potatoes in turns and many other chores. Thanks to the farm, we didn't suffer from hunger.
Most of our interactions in the monastery were with men. One day, I was told I had a visitor. It was a tall woman, dressed in nun's clothes, a large cross hanging from her belt. I looked at her face, and even now, 50 years later, I can still recall her vividly. Her face was framed with white fabric. She had a small brown scar on her left cheek. Her eyes looked at me with such care, compassion and softness that I hadn't seen for a long time. I convinced myself that it was my mother, despite the perfect Ukrainian the woman spoke, while my mother wasn't able to speak any other language other than German, her mother tongue. I looked away immediately, so as not to give away her new identity. I never saw her again, and I cannot remember anything of our conversation, but my certainty about her real identity was a source of strength for me in the upcoming two years.
There are three Jewish children in the photograph
In the second row, second from the right: Oded Amerant, and third from the right:
Dr. Daniel Adam Rotfeld, and above and between them, Dr. Leon Chameides
A monk woke us up for prayers every morning with a wooden rattle. Sundays and holidays were special. Until 1944 we had a bell at church, and we would hold on and hang down, pulling on the rope to ring the bell. The church was built with stone and was lit by candles, which created soft shadows. When the priest started the prayer, we would eagerly wait for the slight tingle of tiny bells and the scent of incense that followed it. If we went to confess, we received some holy bread. It was important to let the wafer melt on your tongue, and never bite on the body of God. The confession was always an issue for me, as I never seemed to know what sins I should confess. I usually stuck to the reliable ones, such as lying and evil thoughts.
We slept in a long hall, beds close together dormitory-style. Every night before bed time, I kneeled and prayed deeply for Jesus and Maria to protect me and keep me from talking in my sleep and exposing myself. Brother Marko would often learn from his friends at the Gestapo when the monastery was about to be inspected. On these occasions I was wakened hastily and taken to one of the peasants' houses. I was too slow, and often didn't manage to put on my socks and shoes on time. My shoes were made of fabric and had wooden soles. My socks were square pieces of fabric that I learned to carefully wrap around my feet. A few of these nighttime escapes happened in the winter, and running barefoot in the snow caused me severe, painful burns.
At the time, we weren't yet aware of the tragic events taking place, despite the fact that the Belziec death camp was in our area, but we did get clues. One day I was on my way to the mill, when I passed by a family that was squeezed into a small car. They were visibly Jewish - a man with a small beard, a woman with her hair covered, and two young children. I remember them so clearly; they left a great impression on me.
I looked for them and found them again the next day and the following one, and then they were gone. Some of us went to the woods that circled the monastery, and there we found the entire family, shot to death. The man's stomach was torn open, his insides scattered on the ground.
In 1944 the front drew near us, and the fighting was in the nearby forests. We saw many German soldiers, and a few Ukrainians who wore German uniforms. The church became a field hospital, and at nine years of age, I was helping to take care of the wounded. We were short of bandages, and after every battle I would go to the forest and take bandages off the dead, carefully wash and re-use them. I learned a lot from this experience: for example, when a wound was covered with green and smelled sort of sweet, it usually meant that the wounded person would not survive very much longer. Only years later I learned that those were the signs of a bacterial infection. Of course, we didn't have any medicines. The wounded soldiers' families would come every Sunday to find them. They often brought with them eggs and cheese, and so i learned that one person's sorrow can turn into another's saving.
In the end of an eternity, the sun came out from behind the heavy clouds. The rain eased and the water ebbed, but a rainbow was yet to show. We burst out of the ark, looking for a landmark, or a familiar face, but the flood took away everything. We crossed seas and continents in the search- mostly for ourselves, for our sense of belonging- but we found out that it was impossible for us, who were hanging between memories, dreams and nightmares, to belong. A few, who were too exhausted to go on, were shattered against the rocks and joined their families. Some of us, those who were luckier, were snatched from the storm by a loving us that sheltered us lovingly, like an angel's wings, and gave us a chance to catch our breath, set down roots again and even blossom.
After we were released in 1944, the Soviet army began to hunt down Ukrainian priests that were considered too nationalist. They were either banished or shot on the spot. Around this time I left the monastery, and was on my way back to Lwow, to St. George's. During the morning prayer in the church, when brother Joseph was in the middle of his service, I saw my brother enter the room and call me to follow him. It was the first time I had seen him in two years. Rabbi Kahana met us and told us that no other family members were spared. Our parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents were all murdered. I was nine years old, and had just been told that nothing was left of my world, but I don't remember feeling any excitement. It probably felt like a most natural thing in a clearly insane world.
A woman named Tola Waserman lived in Lwow, and she wanted to take care of me. I was brought to her house on number 7 Asnika Street in the evening, and she prepared me dinner. an omelette, mashed potatoes and mushrooms, served on a porcelain plate. I can still remember the taste, and it was delicious. She gave me much more than food: she healed my soul, watched over me, gave me love and made sure I got a good Jewish education. She corrected my world and became my mother- and I became her son.
Every witness is unique, because everyone carries a within him a personal perspective, and a tiny piece of the whole. Those of us who were hidden as children were witnesses to how, in the darkness of so long ago, there were still a few shining stars. Their light glowed brighter because they were so scarce. We are witnesses to the little kindness and compassion that was still to be found in these inhumane countries. We are witnesses to the few saints that lived in Sodom, and declared loud and clear that they were indeed, the guardians of their brothers. It was because of their merit that Sodom wasn't destroyed entirely.
A witness is obligated to remember and to remind others, but the question is, what memories are we transferring from the other world? The torments of death, or the excitement and happiness of the victims' lives, before they even became victims? Memories can teach a lesson about human relations, about how fragile souls are and how easily they can turn a man into a saint or a devil. Memories can convey the peculiarity and richness of Jewish tradition, but they can also awaken our children's sense of guilt, and make them lonely and bitter. Memory can elevate their spirits, or swallow them whole. We have already built statues in memory of death; let us devote ourselves to the education of the next generations, and to making them a living memorial, so that they can live as Jews after so many others had to die as Jews.
Translation edited by Lisa Newman
Katowice was a part of Germany until the end of World War I, and in 1918 it was given to Poland. From this year until the World War II, its population of about 100,000 consisted of Polish, Germans and Jews who all lived together. The Jews of Katowice never worked at hard physical jobs like coal mining. Instead, many of them made a living in retail and textile businesses.
There weren't many poor Jews, but some families did need the community's aid. They were supported through a public restaurant that fed them for free; the school funded vacations, trips and events for their children. Warm clothes were collected and donated before winter time, and financial aid was offered to those who needed it before the holidays.
When the military activity increased, around September 1939, the atmosphere in Katowice changed and antisemitism increased. Before that time, the relations between Jews and Polish were regularly warm and friendly. I remember that our neighbours invited us to come over on Christmas, and after the singing every child got a present. Another time, the neighbour took care of the children when they were back from school, washed them and put them to bed without us even knowing that.
While antisemitism was on the rise, Volksdeutsche were starting to call on the Jews to leave the district. Indeed, many escaped as soon as the war began, crossed to the Russian side and proceeded to Sosnowiec. I lived next to the synagogue in Katowice. After a few days, the Germans burned down the building and everything that was inside it: Torah scrolls, prayer books, embroidered covers and so on. I remember acts of hostility from the time we spent in Sosnowiec: I once walked with a friend of mine and her father, who was an orthodox Jew and grew a beard, when a few SS officers who went by stopped him and pulled hard at the old man's beard. Another SS person simply slapped me on the street. Many Jews were forced to do filthy chores, such as cleaning the sewers. One day, the Germans caught a Jew who was claimed to have business in the black market (of course, it was impossible to live off the food that was available in the legal market). He was an elderly, respected orthodox Jew, a father of two. The Germans condemned him to hanging. Before his execution, the Germans passed door to door to ensure that all of the Jews in Sosnowiec would come to the hanging.
Shops that produced military supplies were later opened. It took a special document to prove that one was indeed capable of work and vital. Those lucky people were allowed to stay in the city and work, but those who were caught without such a certificate were instantly sent to a concentration camp.
I remember the night of the big transport, when most of the city's Jews were taken away. It was late on a cold winter night. The Germans lit the streets with flashlights, and shouted everyone out!. Women and children, old and sick people, boys and pregnant women were all taken out of their homes. The group was led to a military base outside the city. They were checked in the morning, and those who had a certificate were allowed back. This is how my parents were saved. Later, in 1942, I was woken up by a knock on my door and was taken to a concentration camp. At first, I still managed to keep in touch with my family. Later I learned that the ghetto was closed, and that eventually everyone was sent Auschwitz.
The work in the camp was hard, and there was hardly any food. As a result of the terrible conditions, many of the girls who were with me caught tuberculosis. We were checked monthly, and those who were found sick were instantly sent to Auschwitz. I remember one beautiful 16-year old girl, that I heard the SS officers speak of, telling how she met her death with a smile. I remember another woman, who was there with her sister and her 10 year old daughter. The women in camp saved some of their food and fed the girl so that she would survive, but she suddenly got ill. The mother screamed that she had to go with her daughter, but they didn't let her. A month later she was found ill as well and was sent away.
I remember one 12 year old girl who worked with me in weaving. All we got to eat was a slice of bread for a whole work day. The manager made her work until she finished her quota, which sometimes took until midnight. I felt bad for her, and left a piece of my bread for when she came back from work.
There was also an old woman who kept some of her bread for this girl.
In 1944 we were put in a factory, that had previously employed male workers. The two managers were kind men, and they gave us some extra food. So did some Italian men who worked there. They may have never heard anything about Jews, except for the caricatures that were published in the Stirmer. One of the managers was scared of his wife, who was a leader in the Hitler Jugend youth group, so he brought us food very secretly.
A group of women from Hungary was later brought to our camp, and then the Germans decided to move us to another camp, probably because the Russian forces were drawing near. We walked about 20 kilometers a day, and slept in barns or pig pens. It was so cold that we when we clung to each other in our sleep, a thin layer of ice was formed on us. Sometimes we were given a little pig food by the owners of the farms where we slept. I remember that on the death march, there was a woman who walked with her two daughters. One of them collapsed and her mother carried her in her arms. One SS officer saw it and shot her.
After an exhausting march, we got to a death camp where the prisoners worked manufacturing ammunition. Their faces were all yellow because of the sulfur. At night, the SS came and ordered the sick girls to give their shoes and clothes to the healthier ones. The camp was surrounded with a fence, the upper part of which was electric. There were barrels of explosives every 100 meters. One of the girls managed to sneak in a couple of pliers, and to cut through the fence. Many girls escaped, and I was among them. I was in a group of six, and I remember a miracle: right after we got out we came across a couple of SS men who stopped us, counted us and walked away. It was a miracle, because wandering around the area was forbidden anyhow, due to the ammunition factories. Anyone who was caught there, including Germans, was shot to death.
We walked on. Chaos was already everywhere. We came to one house and asked for shelter. The owner of the house agreed to take us in, but later told us to register for work at the ministry, where a friend of hers worked. We thought that her friend might turn us in, and therefore lied when we got back and said we couldn't find her. The owner found out about the lie, and we ran away again.
On the road we met a group of a thousand girls who were led by Germans. We quickly got away from them. Interestingly enough, the soldier in charge seemed to have felt sorry for the girls, because he walked in the middle of the group, and those who walked behind him were able to escape. Later on we met a Polish man, and told him we were Polish too. He took us to his village, where we got decent jobs and even received fake IDs. I made up a story about how our town was invaded by the Russians and we lost our documents; this is how we managed to stay alive till the end of the war.
Translation edited by Lisa Newman
I was born in 1921. at first, we lived in a town next to Katowice. I attended a Polish elementary school, as there were very few Jews. In the evening we had religion classes, in which Rabbi Fogelman taught us Judaism. He was a unique person, and the knowledge he passed to us was enlightening. I remember how once a six year old boy of our family died of diphtheria, and the Rabbi took the train from Katowice to our town every evening to console the mourning relatives.
Around 1933 we moved to Katowice, and I was one of the only two Jewish students- the other one was from Sosnowiec. The teachers were antisemitic. My friend was expelled in our fourth year, and I moved to another school, where there were more Jewish students. We didn't learn too much Judaism to our exams, so we needed to get our grades from Rabbi Fogelman. You have enough worries already he told us then, and gave us A's. When I was in high school, my younger sister attended the Joselewicz elementary school that was opened exclusively for Jewish kids. Thanks to her teacher, Dorka Lerner, I got to teach private lessons in Polish to young students, and help my family with the money I earned.
In 1938 I got a job in an international bank that was owned by Kriger and Kornhauzer. That year, Jews from Germany were being banished to Zbonszyn and Bardjunkow, near the Polish border. One day a manager's wife asked me whether I was willing to help the refugees. I knew nothing about it. At night, we drove by the refugee camps, and I finally begun to understand what the Germans were doing to Jews. They were thrown near the border in the middle of the night, and the Poles didn't allow them to cross. These people still didn't realize what was happening to them. They were completely shocked, and just sat there. The manager's wife and I brought them coffee and cookies.
On September 7, 1939 I was at work when I heard Polish people calling Jews, out!. There were Polish attacks on Jews even before the war started. I told the manager: there's a war now, people are wearing hook-crosses... he couldn't believe me. I went up on the roof and saw that there were bombings. I got inside and said I was leaving. The manager asked me to cover the lamps before I left, and then left himself. I haven't seen him since.
Many Jews learned a profession in order to later move to Israel, but didn't make it on time. Others believed that nothing would happen to them, thanks to their German origins. When the war broke out, I moved to Sosnowiec. I was eighteen. In this ghetto I met many people from Katowice. It was harder for us to get along, because we weren't local, but we did try to help each other. In the ghetto, I worked for halt in manufacturing clothing for the German army. We hardly earned anything, and we got food vouchers. I had to work a month just to be able to buy one loaf of bread.
We dug bunkers in our basements. We blocked a door that led to a side room, and dug a pit through which we could pass to the room. Germans would come from time to time, catch Jews on the street and torment them. They pulled out men's beards, made them give away their gold and copper dishes and jewelry. Whoever refused to obey was beaten. One day, the Germans caught 5000-6000 Jews in order to transport them from Srodula ghetto to Auschwitz by train. The roadsides were guarded by SS soldiers.
I left the bunker with no valuables on me. On the way, the Germans, who were riding horses, ordered us to stop. One of them told me to pick up the bundle. I didn't understand I couldn't see anything. He then kicked the bundle, in which was a 5-month old baby thrown off the train, in hope that somehow she would survive. I took her without knowing how to take care of her.
I sat in the train, and the baby was crying. The German told me to give her away, but no one wanted to take her from me, because it meant dying. The German made someone take her, and so she was passed from one person to the other, again and again.
In the ghetto, a number of families had to live in one room. The Jews worked in different jobs, in three shifts. I worked in an office. You had to work even if you were sick. The Germans caught children and sent them to Auschwitz. They would beat Jews on the street for no reason. The dogs at the German headquarters were trained to recognize Jews and bite them. On Yom-Kippur night, a Nazi officer entered the shul with his dog and said Jews, this dog has eaten two Jews already. In the ghetto, the Germans would sometimes get into houses and bang babies' heads against the walls. After all we went through in the ghetto, the illness and the fear we experienced, the camps were nothing to us.
Later on, I was moved to a labor camp, where I got ill. I continued to work in a shop, where we mended clothes. Jews from all over Europe worked there with me. The Russians arrived at the last minute. The Germans escaped, and we were saved. After the war, I returned to Katowice to look for my parents, but I couldn't find them. Three years later, I finally came to Israel.
Translation edited by Lisa Newman
I was born in Boiten, Germany in 1924. We moved to Katowice in 1933. We had relatives there. At first, I attended the Berek Joselewicz elementary school, and from there, I was supposed to continue to the commerce school in Bendzin, but then the war broke out. We had to leave Katowice, and moved to Chrzanow. We lived there in the ghetto, until the city was cleared of Jews. We had to work in horrible conditions, and were finally transferred to a concentration camp. Our parents and other relatives were all sent to Auschwitz. No one of my close family stayed alive.
My family had a business in Katowice. It had a few branches, which were run by other family members. The Orbach family was well known in the community. They had lived in Katowice for generations, and their roots went as far back as the 18th century. We were a part of our community's life, of the synagogue, attended the community's school and culture events. We were also members of the Zionist youth groups and the foundation. We were a big family. My grandmother had 13 children, and most of them lived in Katowice, Bielsko, Berlin and Chemnitz. They used to visit us in the holidays.
When the war broke out, we knew that some were at the Tarnow ghetto, where they were murdered. Others were in Mauthauzen and other death camps, and some were in Krakow ghetto. I survived camp Peterswaldau, where I suffered from tuberculosis. I weighed 30 kilograms. I was unable to walk. After the war, I was sent to a sanitarium. I recovered and gained some weight, but the physical damage and pains have lasted to this day.
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