During Hitler times, every Jew had some method for saving his life. One fled to the forest, a second to a bunker, a third with a Christian in a hospital, posed as an Aryan, as a professional, and numerous other ways, to save his soul from the horrific cataclysm and stay alive to be a witness for future generations. The end justifies the means. Everything was justified to find the unnatural means to remain alive, and most of all, to survive the hangman.
Posing as Aryan could only be a choice for someone who looked good, could speak good Polish, and had a good accent, good papers and most importantly good Christians who were willing to help, because the crucial thing was to have a roof over one's head. Many risked the unknown by traveling to a strange place, posing as a cursed or bombed out Christian taking on positions of responsibility.
The Hitler storm caught me in June 1941 in a large city in Galicia, where I worked as a dental technician. A friend of mine was told that everyone who worked in the dental lab would be held responsible because of all the damage that had occurred. I went to my Christian acquaintances who were patients and stayed with them for two weeks.
My sister came with a wagon and took me posing as a sick patient to a small village where my parents and the whole family lived. In the village they grabbed all the young people for work. From my first day there I didn't go into the street, and since I wasn't visible that whole time, they didn't look for me at all.
I couldn't remain like that for very long, so I decided to sign on to work as a dentist in the hospital. The director of the hospital a Ukrainian explained to me that if the Germans allowed it, he would take me on. I was registered and counted among the lucky ones who didn't have to do heavy labor and get badly beaten. That's how I worked during the whole winter of 1942. In the spring of 1942, the situation for the Jews worsened. Those who weren't working, they grabbed in the streets and from houses, taking them away to the cegielnia (brick works) to be shot, or to an unknown place. The so-called workers endured many selections and further screenings that were harsher. It is worth noting that the First Aktion took place when they took the Jews on the Sabbath in their prayer shawls from the synagogue and shot them. These details were told by a Gestapo man who came to the hospital to have his teeth taken care of.
During the whole summer they grabbed Jews for work and gathered them up, and in the fall they created the ghetto. In October 1942 the Second Aktion took place. What is meant by an Aktion can only be described in a special booklet. The whole family of an acquaintance of mine tried to protect themselves in various ways and built a bunker under their apartment.
Feeling secure as a worker in the hospital, I went out through the other gate during the Aktion, to see what was going on. I was caught by two shupos (security police) and my just complaints didn't help me at all; they took me to the big market square where they were gathering the Jews to be taken away. I must stress here that as the entire Aktion took place so quietly that no one in the ghetto was aware of what was happening, as they went out into the street, they simply fell into the hands of the murderers. By noon, they had already gathered over 2,000 Jews. By chance, a Ukrainian hospital aide was going by and I signaled to him that he should go quickly to the hospital and tell the director that they mean to take me away and that the director should come and arrange for my release. The director, in fact came, but to my great misfortune, the commandant wasn't there. And so they had to quickly decide because they were already forming the groups for the train. After much bargaining, however, the director did rescue me.
And so I began to work in the hospital in outpatient dentistry, separated from all Jews. One evening when I went into the X-ray division that was managed by a nun, I had the opportunity to get to know her better. I must honestly say that that moment marked the beginning of weaving the web that would shape the whole story that I want to tell here. Having known me from before, the nun began asking a lot about me and so began a discussion about faith and religion. The discussion lasted so long that the nun asked me seriously if I wanted to convert.
My answer was that religion, faith and conviction don't come just like that. Conviction comes with time and learning when one studies something that one wants to believe in. A person is in harmony with his conscience when he is convinced that he is on the right path. There is no reason to convert without conviction, without belief. The nun agreed with me and said, that it pleased her very much that I take the matter seriously and it remained that I should think about it and give her an answer. For me that evening was most important. I discovered two vital things: 1) many believing Christians had the goal of capturing Jewish souls, seeing in that a great achievement for the church; 2) I, from my side, like any Jew, grabbed at anything in order to survive. Sooner or later it would also be my turn in the systematic extermination of Jews. During all the Aktions, I conceived of plans to survive: bunker, cellar, forest, as an Aryan and many other ways. After the conversation with the nun, I decided that I must get away and that this nun could be my savior.
Two to three months passed quietly. They brought all the Jews from surrounding villages to the ghetto in our town, and the Gestapo ensured [us] that only our town would remain. Having the opportunity to be outside the ghetto, I decided with another doctor to try an alternative plan, so as to not only save ourselves but also our families.
Behind the hospital were good, comfortable cellars containing the pipes for water and all electricity, but to gain entry would require a lot of work. An electrical technician whose job was in this cellar could carry out this work with us and could also be the one to bring us food during the time we would be in the cellar-bunker. As chance would have it the worker didn't have one tooth in his mouth, and I suggested to him that I would make him teeth without asking payment. After a lengthy introduction, I explained what it was all about. After his teeth were fixed, the Christian agreed to work with us. He was the most appropriate person for this plan as he wouldn't arouse suspicion since his job required him being in the cellars. We did the work at night. The whole hospital was asleep. The doctor might stroll around the courtyard because he worked only at night. Preparing the bunker took three months to complete. It was only difficult in the beginning with carrying out the soil. But when it was big enough for a person to crawl in, the work proceeded more quickly.
In the ghetto, during that time, it was quiet in terms of Aktions. A typhus epidemic broke out and there was hunger as well. That year, the winter was mild and that caused the epidemic to spread more rapidly. There were 30-40 deaths a day. We even remarked that the Gestapo wasn't carrying out any Aktions, because the Jews were dying anyway.
Jews with a good Aryan appearance would get papers and get away. Regretfully, the Gestapo had their people in the ghetto who betrayed them. Whenever an Aryan disappeared, the Gestapo arrested the whole family. This had a great bearing on our plan because if we were going to disappear, we wanted to take our entire families with us. My family urged me to get papers, but I didn't want to abandon them.
One time, after work one evening, the director of the hospital called us together and explained that it was getting hot and he advised us, to get ourselves Aryan papers, and be prepared at any moment necessary to disappear because the hospital was no longer safe. Several days after the director's talk, the nun also suggested that I get papers because time was short. In view of our last conversation and her goal that I become a Christian, she was prepared to do everything possible to help and [to continue] to help me the entire time. She told me that she had her brother's birth certificate; he had gone away to the front in 1939 and hadn't yet returned. Since our ages were similar, she would give me a form for an identity card and I would thus have the advantage of being her brother, able to prove that I was part of a living Christian family. All of this would be possible if I would pledge to become a true Christian afterwards.
She could see that in spite of the danger hanging over me, I was sincere, so she began her work. She took two of my photographs and had the documents prepared for me, with the assistance of the Polish aid committee that secretly helped the underground movement. Even though I had the documents, I was uncertain that I should take this route and proposed instead to carry out the plan of the bunker, because of my family. I decided to include the nun in this matter for two reasons: 1) she would be able to help us with many things, and 2) in trusting the Christian technician we were still afraid that at some point he'd want to take everything and get rid of us. In that case, it was better that the Christian know that a second person was also involved, and especially that it was a nun. The uncertainty always tormented us. I told the nun, that I would go on my way, in compliance with her wishes, but that in the bunker, we would rescue our families. She agreed and we gave her money to buy food. We wanted to ensure a minimum of two months' supply. And so the spring of 1943 arrived. Many of the surrounding villages were already completely Judenfrei (free of Jews).
One time there was an alarm when we saw new police and new Gest[apo] personnel. At home, we had also built a bunker under the apartment, where we could stay for a short time. Luckily, this time it was an unnecessary scare, for after two days the new Gestapo left. Money and gold had been collected in the village to buy off the murderers. However, it was only a trick they played. They wanted to get as much money as possible from the Jews in a normal fashion so that fewer Jews would try to escape. But the calm lasted only a week, no more. In the hospital we also began to feel the air was heavy, so we decided that at the first opportunity we would bring our families into the hospital bunker, when it was still possible. At four in the morning we heard shooting; right away we understood that the Aktion had begun. I thought we had waited too long and missed the chance to bring the families into the hospital bunker. We sent Jan [Christian technician] to the street to see what was happening. He brought the sad news that the ghetto was surrounded by the Gestapo and Ukrainians and they kept shooting. It was already 6 a.m. My friend the doctor said that he had to go to work normally not to rouse suspicion. I didn't go to work anymore because I understood that this was the last Aktion and that we were too late with the plan for our families. I told the doctor and Jan that if anyone asked where I was they should say that I had gone to my parents in the ghetto last night and fell into the trap.
I stayed in the hospital bunker and the doctor left for work. Jan came back to me every few hours with news. They continuously herded the Jews from the ghetto to the cegielnia where they murdered some and boarded others on trains. The doctor was upstairs the whole day and in the evening he came back a broken man with the news that he himself saw his wife and his child taken away on one of the trucks. The director no longer spoke with him at all and acted as if he didn't know him. I advised him to stay in the bunker, but he didn't agree.
In the morning he went to work again. It took three days to liquidate the ghetto, and on the third day the doctor came and said he would stay in the bunker because the director had particularly not spoken to him. Nobody asked about me. All those who were badly disposed toward the Jews didn't speak out at all and in their hearts were delighted that finally they were rid of the Jews. Those who were well-disposed were afraid to speak out. We were very upset by the incident of the boy who ran from a truck near the hospital; they shot him in the legs. When he tried again to run, a hospital worker ran after him and handed him over to the Gestapo. After a few days, Jan came and said that the director was asking about the doctor stating that the Gestapo was allowing the Jewish doctor to work. The director also asked about me so he answered that I went to the ghetto and apparently succumbed. I told the doctor that he should decide finally whether to stay or go out because disappearing and then appearing again would arouse suspicion and cause them to begin searching. The doctor didn't listen to me and went out and never came back. Afterwards, Jan told me that he worked for several days more and after that he vanished. There were various rumors, but nobody really knew what happened to him.
And so two weeks passed. From the newspapers that Jan brought me from time to time, I saw that the war would last a long time. I wouldn't be able to survive alone in the bunker. Even after the liquidation of Jews, the ghetto was still surrounded and every day they discovered additional bunkers, blowing up many houses in the process. For more than two weeks they were still carrying the Jews' belongings from the homes and cellars. All roads and trains were also patrolled to capture Jews who had escaped. I wanted to know what happened to my family. I begged Jan to ask the nun for me. When she had night duty, I came out of the bunker and asked her to go to the ghetto. She came back with the answer that the ghetto is still surrounded and no one can get in. It was nearly a month that I had been sitting alone in the bunker. I even asked Jan to come often, for security reasons. I began to talk to myself to make sure I hadn't lost my voice. In the fifth week, Jan came and told me that everything in the ghetto had been liquidated, and that they had taken away the sentries and let in the Ukrainian mob that ransacked and plundered what remained. They went so far as to take apart the houses. In the sixth week I asked the nun to go again to the ghetto to see if any of my relatives remained in the bunker of our apartment. She came back to say that the boards on the entrance to the bunker remained intact, all things in the cellar are there, but she found no people. I was relieved since I believed that they got out on their own, because when the Gestapo found people, they usually blew up the house. I asked the nun to go in the evening and take the things out of the cellar. However, she didn't find anything there anymore. The Ukrainians did a good job.
I stayed in the bunker for two months. Besides feeling that I wouldn't be able to bear it, Jan also became cooler in his attitude, came very infrequently, and began to tell me that he was afraid because they ask him if he knows where the doctor can be found and other questions. I decided to discuss this with the nun. A lengthy discussion began in which she told me that now there can be no talk about getting out because all roads are patrolled. To show that I became more submissive, I declared that I would go to study in a cloister.
A week later the nun came with the answer that there was no place for me in the city. She also told me that because the Polish people don't feel secure in Galicia, they decided to transport all the nuns to the western regions of Poland. She would remain here as the last one to go because she would be responsible for the transport of the nuns. In this way she would take me with her to the new city and there they would take me into the cloister. All the nuns left our village and this nun remained. I asked her to hide me in one of the rooms in her house where now there was no one. She resisted this, but ultimately she agreed. That same evening, I went up to the X-ray room to meet the nun and she took me to the new apartment. I stayed in that room for a week. One day, the nun came in and told me that the Gestapo wanted to occupy the house, leaving her only one room until her departure. Explaining to them that obviously she would leave soon, the nun was successful in postponing their takeover of the house for a few weeks. She sent a messenger to the west to look for an apartment; this took a few weeks. In the meantime she began to quickly teach me all of the details about the Christian religion so that when we'd arrive in the new town, I should already be an advanced student.
Luckily, they found an apartment in the west. Then came the most difficult moment: as we were leaving the village, on the bridge stood a Ukrainian policeman and a Gestapo man and they were inspecting everyone. Everyone in the village knew me. After much consideration, we decided that I should leave the town disguised as a nun. She took a photo of a nun and had the Polish committee make an identity card for me as a nun. We prepared to go and she emptied the apartment, sent off all the boxes and furniture, and I changed into the habit of a nun while she notified the hospital that a nun had come to assist her on the journey.
Luckily, we were able to leave the hospital, pass through the bridge inspection and arrive at the train. In the train I sat with an umbrella in one hand and with their prayer book in the other. We got off the train a station before our destination and arrived at our destination on foot, because I had to appear officially as the brother of the nun. I changed again into men's clothes, and felt good as the loving brother of the sister.
We needed to quickly take care of the formalities for entering the cloister, because the nuns who were on their way knew me from the hospital, [but] the priest kept postponing it. Afterwards I discovered that this was all in order to make sure that everything would happen as planned, and to see if the priest was prepared to support it. She went [to the priest] and came back to tell me that she had to go again to him. When she did, he agreed to see me. She kept teaching me various things so that the whole endeavor wouldn't be ruined by a small detail. I went to the pater and he began with a whole series of questions about why I was so strongly committed to do this thing. I told him that my sister and I witnessed the Ukrainians murder our whole family and depriving us of all of our belongings in Galicia. In view of this, I was determined to live out my years in the same way as my sister and go into the cloister. When he saw my strong resolve, he told me to come every day for an hour so that his assistant could teach me. And thus two weeks passed. I would have wanted them to allow me to leave the house sooner because the nun wanted to finally bring in the rest of the nuns, and the test [initiation] took such a long time. The teacher strolled with me through the streets of the town and showed me all the beautiful things that I must forego. I couldn't get all this into my head, because I was constantly afraid that some passing Christian might recognize me. After this initial test, they decided to take me on for a trial month in the cloister, after which I would be officially admitted. I arrived at the designated hour and was told that I should come to the lectures every day, but my room wouldn't be ready before ten days time. This was not good for me, but I got along very well with the sons of the owner of the apartment where I was at that time. They all told me about the Polish underground movement suggesting that I work with them. I answered that I was committed to my holy path. In my heart I thought that if it didn't work out, I would have to take their suggestion. I must stress that they were all very anti-Jewish, and because of this I didn't trust them at all. One time, I told my teacher, the priest, that I studied dentistry so he sent me to practice dentistry in the cloister hospital. In this way, I worked and studied until the middle of January 1945 when the Russians invaded Poland.
Then I had more freedom, a sense that the danger had disappeared. My sister came to visit, very satisfied that I was studying, ignoring the fact that the Germans were already gone. She thought that since the Germans were gone and I was rescued, that I would soon disappear. Then the first Jews began to show up. I asked the nun to travel to my village to inquire if possibly anyone in my family survived. After two weeks she returned and told me that she found out that my mother's brother and his wife were alive. I wrote them a letter and told them not to answer me directly, but to a doctor acquaintance of mine who had Aryan papers. He became the go-between. One time I saw my brother through the tram window. I got out, chased him down and we went into a doorway and cried in each other's arms I the priest, and he the Jew. We gathered one time at the doctor's and talked for a long time about what we should do. After a short time, we left for Eretz Israel.
|A photo taken in Abelsberg camp, Austria, in 1949 before the aliya to Israel:
The Pelz family with Rivka Puder and her daughter, Hasah and Nachum Fogelman and others
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