Aleksandra Berłowicz, born in 1932
I had a happy childhood
I was born in the Jewish quarter in Warsaw at 21 Zamenhof Street, Apartment No. 3. It was precisely in this apartment (my father was also born there many years earlier) that the war found us. Later, this house came to be included within the confines of the ghetto which, at first, spared us the dramatic experience of most of the Jewish population, i.e., the relocation to the ghetto combined with the loss of property and a sense of degradation.
Until then, my childhood had passed very happily. I was an only child. My father, a doctor, had his practice in the Jewish quarter. Mother did not work; she took care of the house and, of course, me. From those times, I remember Dr. Korczak, who used to visit his former charge, Gabrysia Zandberg, my preschool teacher, in the Saxon Gardens. Also preserved in my memory is the image, frequently seen from the balcony, of our pious neighbor, Mr. Kajman. Wrapped in a prayer shawl and phylacteries, he prayed all day long on his balcony. I could also look out through the window at Kupiecka Street with its hackney carriage stand and the courtyard passage to Nalewki Street. Frequently, groups of Jews in long black coats and yarmulkes stood there, gesturing animatedly while discussing some question.
Dr. Korczak – Janusz Korczak was a famous educator and the head of an orphanage.
I loved to travel with Mama in a beat-up hackney carriage to 25 Emilia Plater Street to my cousin Emil’s. He used to read to me about mice and King Popiel, and also the stories of Dr. Doolittle. From Zamenhof Street, one stepped out into a world that was close, intimate, and our own. Grandma and Uncle Szulim with his wife and children lived on Nowolipki Street. Just nearby also stood the house once inhabited by Ludwik Zamenhof. A plaque dedicated to him was placed there. For outings, I would be taken to Saxon Gardens or to Traugutt Park, where I rode my tricycle or chased after a hoop. I attended a Jewish School, “Federation of Teachers,” on Rymarska Street. A great attraction was the taking of swimming lessons at Mr. Wacław Nowiński’s.
Ludwik Zamenhof – inventor of the universal language Esperanto.
My carefree childhood ended abruptly when, after a return from vacation in Druskienniki in August of 1939, I found gas masks laid out on the table in our home. This was the beginning. Soon, my father was mobilized, and he became the head physician of the Zakroczym subsector.
I lived through a moment of palpable horror when the Jewish quarter was bombed (it seems that this was on the Yom Kippur holiday). Holding Mother’s hand, I raced to Grandma’s house where it was supposed to be safer. Along the way, I saw a house burning on Gęsia Street. Flames were shooting up, sparks were falling under my feet, the smoke was choking. One day, Mother showed me, through the window, German soldiers entering.
Shortly before the ghetto was created, my father returned from the prisoner-of-war camp in Laufen. Our home was reasonably well supplied with biscuits, beans, and kasha. Moreover, Mr. Wacław Nowiński who worked in the River Police Station, used to visit us in the ghetto in his police uniform and bring bread and onions as well as rationed marmalade, which has become fixed in my mind as an unforgettable delicacy. The apartment was quickly getting more crowded. Family members, immediate and distant, deported from Łódź and smaller cities, were constantly arriving. In general, the doors were never closed.
Spotted fever raged. Except for Father, everybody fell sick. In the streets, adults and children were dying of hunger, cold, and illness. Some, having sold off their remaining clothing for money to buy food, were dressed in papers tied together by string. Dead bodies lying in the street were also being covered with sheets of paper, weighted down by stones, because Pinkerts Undertakers could not keep up with removing the corpses. I often saw Pinkerts carts filled with corpses of babies and older children.
It happened also that dead people were kept home as long as possible in order to make use of their food ration coupons, at least for a few days. And children used to sing, “Oy, this coupon, I don’t want to give up the coupon.”
“Oy, this coupon…” – popular ghetto song.
Horrible hunger prevailed. Children in rags carried home thin watery soup issued at charitable institutions. If a misfortune occurred and soup spilled, potatoes were picked up immediately, and children would lick the remaining kasha off the pavement.
Driving through the ghetto, the Germans behaved cruelly. Like born sadists, they leaned out of their cars and hit passersby with wooden cudgels. Once, my father was beaten and returned home bloodied. Father did not trust the Germans. He did not seek work in any German establishments (“shops”) and did not participate in selections. He simply sat at home or visited the sick.
On July 22, 1942, “actions” began, that is, the deporting of Jews to death camps. At the beginning, we were hiding in our own apartment and in the apartments of neighbors. On each floor in our building, a wardrobe was positioned to cover up the door of the rearmost room in a line of rooms. The Germans soon discovered this method, and therefore people started to construct new hiding places that would be more difficult to find. In our house, there was a secret distillery. At the end of the cellar corridor, there was a passage dug out under the wall through which one could enter it. We used to crawl in there, and the caretaker of the building, Chaim, would hide the entrance with a wooden cover and camouflage it with old rubbish. He himself had another hideout. In the evening, he would come to let us out.
I remember that among a dozen or so persons who were hiding, there was a small girl, Mirka, maybe two or three years old. She behaved like a grown-up person, moving silently without uttering a sound. Nonetheless, her mother (I think it was she, but, perhaps another woman) did not avoid an additional tragedy. She gave birth in the hiding place to a child whose first cry was smothered by a pillow The danger to everyone was too great. The newborn had to be sacrificed in order to save the others (but in any case, not for long).
At other times, I heard, through the cracks, the words of Ukrainian soldiers rummaging around in the darkness, “Let’s go, let’s go. Nobody’s here.” To this day, I remember the pounding of my heart rising up to my throat.
Toward the end of the summer of 1942, deportation actions calmed down, only to come to life again in late autumn. We were then hiding in the cellar of Mr. Jabłonka. Chaim would not let us into the cellar distillery because, at that time, my mother was sick with typhoid fever.
The new hiding place was better camouflaged. There were several secret tunneled passages leading to it. Underground water stood there. Several couches were placed on piles of coal, and on them, were crowded many persons. I once saw Jews fervently praying there, covered with prayer shawls. Because they had no yarmulkes, they tied the corners of handkerchiefs into knots and covered their heads with them. In the face of great danger, someone sounded a shofar. However, the Almighty paid them no heed.
I also remember a woman doctor with her daughter, a girl my own age, with beautiful brown eyes, Liliana (Werobejczyk?). I know that they both survived on the “Aryan side.” After the war, they left for Israel.
We managed to get out of the ghetto toward the end of March 1943. We succeeded, almost by a miracle, to join up with a group of workers who left the ghetto for work, the so-called placówkarze.
For about six weeks, we were hiding on Żelazna Street in the cigarette factory of Mr. Goszczyński. I was then suffering from a severe throat inflammation with high fever from which I was not at all able to recover. This hiding place was also uncovered, but we managed to leave it in time.
This happened toward the end of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I saw the smoke from the ghetto. The uprising was already subsiding. I fully realized that my grandmothers, my aunts, my uncles with their wives, my cousins, Emil, Jurek, and Lucynka, were all still there. I am unable to express what I felt then.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto by the small population remaining after the deportation of some 400,000 Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp. Organized by the Jewish Fighting Organization (ŻOB), it began on April 19, 1943 and continued until the burning of the ghetto in mid-May. Sporadic fire was reported until September 1943.
We were led out from the hiding place on Żelazna Street by Mr. Wacław Nowiński; he was very moved to see us still alive. He kissed me on the forehead. We walked through Aleje Jerozolimskie and Nowy Świat, through Krakowskie Przedmieście and Nowy Zjazd. We drove across the Kierbedź Bridge in a hackney carriage because Mother and I were left without any strength. We got out by the amusement park so as not to reveal our new hiding place to the driver. In the entryway to 5 Panieńska Street, we were greeted by an old friend from the docks on the Vistula, the Alsatian wolfhound, Rex.
I remember also that immediately, Mrs. Janina Nowińska, along with her daughter Zofia and my mother, placed me into a tub and scrubbed me, changing the water several times. My appearance must have been reminiscent of Grenouille (Frog) from Süskind’s novel Pachnidło (Fragrance), after he emerged from the cave. Shortly after, we were transferred to Mr. Nowiński’s brother, Dionizy, in the town of Choszczówka. Hiding there with us was Gabryś Munwes, the son of a friend of my father (with his mother, Madzia) all, of course, under assumed names. Soon, however, we had to move to the town of Młociny. At the same time, Father was hiding in Mr. Nowiński’s former swimming school in the river harbor in Praga.
Praga – suburb of Warsaw on the right bank of the Vistula.
After a while in Młociny, the ground under our feet began to crumble. At that point, Mr. Nowiński took us to Mrs. Antonina Stefania Chrzanowska-Popowska on Przybyszewski Street, and we lasted there until the collapse of the Warsaw Uprising. The brother-in-law of our guardian, Mr. Mieczysław Mijakowski, with sons Janusz and Adam, fashioned a hiding place for us under the floor. They sawed out a trap door in the floor that was hinged and could be locked from inside with a bolt. Over the trap door, they placed a desk. (For several nights in a row, they secretly carried out the rubble and bricks from there.)
Sometimes, when Germans appeared, seven-year-old Krysia Mijakowska (now a surveyor with a degree in engineering) would take their dog, Aza, outside so that she would not give away our presence by sniffing around the trap door. None of the neighbors knew about us. We were invisible. I remember how I used to somberly watch, through a crack between the wall and the window curtain, children playing in the street. They did not have to hide. Only once, at night, did I manage to ride around on a scooter. It was, however, as I realize today, a risky exploit.
After the collapse of the uprising, the Germans herded us like cattle, with the entire population of the city, to Pruszków. By a stroke of good fortune, an Austrian from Linz, who was escorting us, confessed that he was ashamed of his role here and made it possible for us to escape, by night, into potato fields in the vicinity of Wiśniewo (?).
Until the left bank of Warsaw was liberated, we lived with relatives of the Mijakowskis in the town of Babice Stare, at the home of a cobbler, Mr. Drzewiński (or Drzewiecki). We returned to Warsaw, to Praga, during the second half of January 1945 by crossing the frozen Vistula on foot.
After the war, Father assumed the position of regional physician in Praga and later worked as the Chief of the Tuberculosis Prevention Clinic at 34 Jagiellońska Street.
As for me, I passed the matriculation exam in 1951 at the gymnasium in Praga at 12 Kawęczyńska Street. In the years 1951–57, I studied at the Academy of Medicine in Warsaw. I am now a specialist in eye diseases. My son, Tomasz, is a surgeon.
Warsaw, October 1991