Bronisława Szwajca née Eisner, born in 1932
Among the Silesians
The story that I am about to present here is, to me, unique, just as I know that each of us “children of the Holocaust” regards his or her survival as such, because all of us survived only thanks to some incredible decree of fate. I owe my life to luck, chance, my mother’s courage, and above all, to the selfless assistance of many noble people. My mother and I were saved by Silesians, Germans, and Poles, a Catholic priest, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, by both very poor and fairly affluent people, some fully aware of our origins and situation, others who knew only part of the truth. I survived, as if in spite of the great course of history, in my native Katowice, a city in Germany at that time—which was supposed to be already Judenfrei [free of Jews] from the very beginning of the occupation—whereas my little brother was denounced and killed in the Polish city of Sosnowiec.
Sosnowiec – Upper Silesia, the southwestern part of Poland, which included Katowice, was incorporated into Germany at the beginning of the war. Sosnowiec, though nearby, remained part of the General Government, occupied by the Germans but not annexed to Germany proper.
It is for me particularly important that through these recollections I can commemorate and pay tribute to those people of generous spirit to whom I owe my survival. I am no longer able to reconstruct many of the facts, but fortunately, I have remembered the names of our most significant rescuers. The war dramatically shattered my life. It took away my family, my childhood, my lightheartedness. I was seven years old on September 1, 1939. I was preparing for school. I remember my school uniform—a navy- blue pleated skirt and a blouse with a white sailor’s collar. I was excited. I already knew some little poems, which my dear brother, Pawełek, two years older than I, had learned in school. However, it was not until five and a half years later that I actually attended school.
I remember my childhood as a happy and idyllic one. We were an assimilated family, reasonably well off. We spoke Polish at home. Our parents spoke Yiddish only when they did not want us to understand what they were saying. They were not originally from Silesia. Father came from Galicia (his parents apparently owned a tar paper factory in a village called Osiek). Mother was from Congress Poland (_), from Zawiercie. Their marriage was a misalliance, which Father’s wealthy, educated family did not want to accept. Papa was a lawyer, as was his brother, and his sister was a pharmacist. Mama was a manicurist at a hair salon on Królowa Jadwiga [Queen Jadwiga] Street. She stopped working there after they married but continued to call on a group of her former clients.
Congress Poland – after Poland was partitioned in the eighteenth century, the part controlled by Austria-Hungary became known as the province of Galicia, and the part controlled by Russia, as the Congress Kingdom of Poland.
We lived in a two-room apartment in the center of town on Lubecki Street, which intersects Warszawska Street. We had a housekeeper, Lotka, a young Silesian girl from a large, poor family. She was a half orphan who had been abused by her stepmother, so my parents took care of her and later arranged her engagement reception and wedding. She loved me very much, and when the war broke out and we were expelled from Katowice, she offered to take me in as her own child. Mama was offended by this.
She still didn’t know how tragic the next few years were going to be for us. My brother was the only child in our building who had a bicycle, which all the other children always wanted to borrow. He attended a private school; when the war broke out he was about to enter third grade. Father was a tall, dark-haired man. When he would go for walks with his much shorter brother (who lived nearby) and his family, they would switch partners. His brother would accompany Mama, and Papa, his brother’s tall wife.
My parents were not religious; nonetheless, my brother was circumcised. I remember that father’s name was Józef, but I don’t even know his Jewish name. He was a Communist and for that reason had problems, perhaps even a court case. He was supposed to spend several months in prison or under arrest, but I don’t remember much about it. He later worked in the office of the Biskupski Company on Gliwicka Street. I don’t know what kind of firm this was; I just remember the name. As someone politically suspect, he could not reside in the border zone, so he had to fictitiously register in Sosnowiec. But in reality he continued to live with us. We did not expect then that soon we would all have to leave our home and, in addition, not at all fictitiously.
Fictitiously register in Sosnowiec – before the war Katowice, then in Poland, was close to the German border; Sosnowiec was situated somewhat farther away from the border.
The Germans marched into Katowice on September 3, 1939. We were evicted from our apartment already at the beginning of 1940. We had to leave our furniture there and move to Sosnowiec. Katowice, the administrative capital of the German Upper Silesia, was to be first in line to become free of Jews. We moved to a basement, to a one-room apartment. From that time on, Father would travel every day to some factory in Tarnowskie Góry. He did physical labor there, probably for the first time in his life. Mama worked in the Schoen factory. After the invasion of Russia, she made thick straw covers there for soldiers’ boots. Food rations for Jews were at starvation level, so she smuggled food from the surrounding villages. I myself remember little from that period.
Invasion of Russia Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941.Father received a summons, probably in the summer of 1942. He was to take with him just one suitcase with a few personal belongings. Mama insisted that he not obey the summons, which he most likely received from the Jewish Community Council. He, however, bade us farewell and left. I never saw him again. He was one of the first ones to be “resettled” from Sosnowiec to Auschwitz. In the 1960s my husband noticed a suitcase with our family name on it among the displays in the Auschwitz Museum. It was his suitcase. Now, I don’t see it there any more. I remember Papa as a very good man, an ideal father. Always calm and collected, he didn’t allow my much more impulsive mother to reprimand me. He pampered and protected me. I used to miss him very much and miss him still today.
The Jewish Community Council [Judenrat] was required by the Germans, at various times, to supply a certain number of people for deportation.
Father did not live to see the creation of the Sosnowiec ghetto. It was established in Sosnowiec-Środula), very late in October 1942. The three of us moved there; we lived there from its beginning. Father’s family was also there—his brother and family, as well as his sister, by herself, as her husband and sons had escaped to the Soviet Union at the beginning of the war. They were quite well-to-do. She had stayed behind to watch over their property. Everywhere she went she carried a small case stuffed to the brim with gold.
Środula was the district of Sosnowiec where the ghetto was established.
After Father’s death, Mama wanted to get some of those valuables, but she refused. She believed that this treasure was going to assure her survival. When the time came for the final liquidation of the ghetto, she went to Auschwitz, undoubtedly with her little case.
Two or three years after the war, her husband and sons found us. They had survived in Russia. He then wanted to marry Mama, but she already had someone else. Offended that she had so quickly forgotten her husband, they left for Palestine. We never had any contact with them again. They were the only members of our family who survived the war.
I am not even sure of their family name. I think it was Grinberg (but possibly Brinberg or Grinstein). Perhaps at least the sons are still alive in Israel. Overcrowding, great poverty, and hunger reigned in the ghetto. We were not allowed to go out of it, although at the beginning, it was not closed off. People employed in the “shops” would leave it in organized groups. Mama, who worked in the Schoen plant, managed several times not to return at night to the ghetto. Poles also worked in the factory, in addition to Jews. Thus, by taking off her armband, she could get out to the Aryan side. She brought us some food then and tried to keep in touch with the outside world.
A “shop” was a workshop of Jewish slave labor organized to produce goods for the German war effort.
I don’t remember too many details of our existence in Środula. I don’t know if this is due only to my being then barely ten or eleven years old. Perhaps I wanted very much to forget the whole nightmare. There are things I can’t forget, however—for instance, the huge roundups, allegedly to get people for work. I don’t know how, but the three of us found ourselves in a long column of Jews being led from Środula to Sosnowiec. We walked in fours, Mama and I in one row, and Pawełek several rows back. Mama called my brother over, and he moved close to us. She told him that a few intersections further there was a street, and we should all turn into it. He returned to his row. The two of us escaped into this side street, which was very short, and we could almost immediately turn into the next side street. I was very frightened, and Mama had to hold me firmly by the hand, but nobody shot at us, and we hid in a doorway. There we waited for Pawełek, who was supposed to join us soon.
However, he did not show up. In the evening we returned to the ghetto with a group of workers returning from the shops. He was not in our room, either. Desperate, we cried the whole time, sure that he had not been able to escape—but he returned several hours after us. He was not able to sneak out into the street where Mama and I had escaped and had to wait for another opportunity. He couldn’t find “our” doorway. This time we were lucky. We were together once again.
The liquidation of the ghetto took us by surprise, even though everyone knew it was coming. Mama believed she would know when it was about to happen. A friend of hers, a native German—ironically named Deutsch [German]—often came illegally to visit her Jewish husband who was in the ghetto. She was supposed to inform us if she heard any disturbing signals from her acquaintances at the police station or some other office—but she did not find out anything. On that ill-fated day she herself was in the ghetto. Her authentic German papers apparently did not help her, because she never returned to her apartment in Katowice, where Mama later sent someone to get in touch with her. Our plan was to leave the ghetto at the last possible moment. This was because hiding three people on the Aryan side without a lot of money was not easy. The Germans managed to get ahead of us, however.
The liquidation action began at night, I believe it was a Friday or Saturday, at the very beginning of August 1943. When the shooting started, everyone who could, ran for cover to hiding places prepared earlier. Luckily, one of those places belonged to a neighbor and friend of Mama, a very beautiful, dark-skinned, black-haired Hungarian-Jewish woman. She offered to have us hide with her, her husband, and their two sons. One of them was about my age, the other, younger.
The hiding place was a relatively primitive one. In the courtyard of our house stood small sheds in which coal or some household odds and ends had once been kept, and in them, people dug out cellars with camouflaged entrances. We too found ourselves in such a small cellar, measuring maybe two by two meters. We climbed down there by a ladder; I don’t know if anyone covered up the entrance behind us. There was only a large solid round table in it, some food assembled earlier, and clothes which we had hurriedly brought with us. We sat in darkness and absolute silence on the table, with our backs to each other.
Starting in the morning we could hear wailing, crying, and screaming. Later everything got quiet for a short time. We could not come down from the table because water was slowly seeping in from somewhere above, perhaps from a broken pipe. The water level was steadily rising. After a while, it reached the height of about one meter. It was troublesome, but it possibly saved our lives.
The Germans searched the area of the ghetto intensively for about a week. We could hear the howling of dogs and sporadic shots. Not far from us they uncovered a hideout. The Jews pulled out from there screamed, wailed, and pleaded for their lives. I think they were shot on the spot. The dogs did not track us down, however. It seemed to us that we alone were left in the ghetto, which just a short time before had been so crowded. But we could still hear shots, though much less frequently.
We soon ran out of food, so at night my brother, Pawełek, would slip out, barefoot, from our hiding place and search for food for all of us in the empty apartments. At that time one could already hear Polish being spoken. Poles worked there during the day, cleaning up the area of the ghetto, carrying out furniture and clothing. As time went by, it was harder and harder for Pawełek to find any food, and the water was rising ever higher. There were fewer and fewer workers about, but we started to hear female voices. It was the wives of the workers bringing them their midday meal.
Then Mama decided, “We must come out.” I don’t know how long we had been hiding, six weeks perhaps, maybe a little longer. But the Hungarians decided to stay. They were determined. They said they preferred to die there of hunger rather than come out and fall into the hands of the Germans. We said good-bye to each other. Mama put a scarf over my brother’s head, dressing him like a girl. We washed up a bit in the water, which was in plentiful supply in the cellar, and left. Mama had some acquaintances on the Aryan side; we had a chance.
I remember that day; I’ll never forget it. It was fairly warm and very sunny, although it was probably already October. Accustomed to life in darkness, I could barely see anything. I moved with difficulty, because all the time we had been hiding I had never left our table. Mama took us by the hand. We walked. Time dragged on mercilessly. We finally passed near a guard post. Two policemen sat on the ground on either side. They had nodded off, with their heads slumped, leaning on their rifles. When we were passing by, one of them raised his head and yelled, “Wohin?” [Where to?] Mother responded in Polish that she had brought food for her husband. The policeman waved his hand that we could go. Our legs almost folded under us as we passed right by them. We immediately went to a friend in Sosnowiec. I don’t remember on what street she lived, but I know her last name was Twardzik. When she saw us, she was taken aback and scared. After being assured that no one had seen us coming in, she let us bathe and gave us some food. I don’t know whether we slept at her home or whether we went right away to Katowice. Mama was afraid to travel with two children, because there were frequent checks between Katowice and Sosnowiec, especially after the liquidation of the ghetto. Therefore, she asked who wanted to go first. I got up and started yelling, “Me, me, me!” And so we went.
Once in Katowice, we immediately went to Mrs. Syndutka’s. I stayed there while mother immediately went back to get Pawełek. She didn’t find him. Mrs. Twardzik told Mama to run away at once. She told her that my brother had insisted on going out in the courtyard where some children were playing. Someone had called the police. Pawełek supposedly almost escaped over a wooden fence to the adjoining courtyard. When he was caught, he apparently already had one leg on the other side of the fence. Supposedly he knelt in front of the policeman and begged him to let him go. Whether this is really what happened, I don’t know, and I will never find out.
During the whole occupation Mama lived with the hope that Pawełek was alive somewhere in a camp or at forced labor and would one day return. For a long time still after the war she waited for him. We don’t know where he died, how, or when. All that is left of him is one little photograph. In it, he is sitting, at perhaps age four, a plump little blond boy in short pants on a big rock on the bank of a river. I don’t recognize him anymore in this picture, but sometimes I think about what would have happened if it had been I who had waited for Mama in Sosnowiec. After all, I was not circumcised, had “good” looks, and I would not have gone out to play in the courtyard. Perhaps we would both be alive.
After returning to Katowice in despair, Mama found there not only a hiding place but a warm, sympathetic atmosphere with Mrs. Syndutka. She was the caretaker of a multistory apartment building owned by Mama’s prewar acquaintance, a Silesian named Mrs. Dębińska, on what is today Wojewódzka Street. She lived with her husband in a one-story annex, in just one room. In the corner, at an angle, stood a big, three-door wardrobe, behind which we found refuge. We slept there and stayed there also when our hosts were home. As caretakers, they were constantly at risk of having tenants of the building call on them.
They were incredibly decent, honest, and heroic people. A childless older couple, over fifty, they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They did all they could, completely selflessly, to make us feel comfortable with them. In the evenings they read us their religious pamphlets. They were sure that after the war we would convert to their faith. They encouraged us to come out of our hiding place behind the wardrobe, not only in the evening, but also when they were out cleaning the courtyard. At those times they could easily alert us if anyone was approaching. They shared their food with us. Mama still had some jewelry at that time. Mrs. Syndutka didn’t know how to sell it, so she would take it to Mrs. Dębińska, who would take care of it and give us the money. She knew that we were hiding in her building. We were there several months, but I don’t know exactly how long. In this way we endured what was probably for us the most difficult period psychologically.
In time the jewelry ran out. Not wanting to be such a big burden for our none-too-wealthy benefactors, Mama began to leave our hideout to earn some money. From that time on, she used to go to the homes of Silesians and Germans she knew to give them manicures. Usually, she did not get money for them but rather ration cards or some food. She knew these people from before the war, from the time when she worked at the beauty salon, and later, as a married woman, she used to visit them in their homes to make some extra money.
Mama, who did not have Semitic features, did not disclose her origins, although the ethnicity of Father must have been known to them. Did they not suspect then? I don’t know—on the one hand, there were only a few Jews in Katowice before the war, and they were more assimilated than in other places. Also, marriages between people of different religions were theoretically feasible, because in Silesia, it was possible to have a civil wedding. Perhaps, indeed, Mama was for them simply a Pole from former Congress Poland who had migrated to Silesia in the 1920s in search of a better life. Or, perhaps they knew, but for them it was not important. Maybe they wanted to help or just wanted to take advantage of her well-performed low-cost services.
In any case, we never experienced anything bad from the Silesians, and I feel good in my native Katowice, where I live to this day. I associate the whole nightmare of the war with Sosnowiec, the place of our greatest tragedies, where I have not really been since the end of the occupation, despite the fact that it is located only a few kilometers from Katowice.
From one of her German-Silesian acquaintances Mama found out about the great decency of a certain family, Mr. and Mrs. Czapla. He was a police officer and on the number two Volksliste, but at home, everybody spoke only Polish. They had two daughters, Zuza, who was my age, and little Ingrid. The parents of Mrs. Czapla lived with them. The mother, suffering from a mental disorder, caused them a lot of trouble by running away from home or uncovering windows during air raids. The daughter had to struggle to keep her out of a mental institution. Despite these problems, the Czaplas welcomed me under their roof. They treated me almost like their own daughter. I lived in their three-room apartment on what is today Korfanty Avenue. I became friends with Zuza and looked after two-year-old Ingrid, who loved me so much that when she was lying in the hospital with diphtheria and we visited her, she cried through the window and repeated only my name. She never returned from the hospital; she died—from what at that time was a dangerous disease.
Volksliste – list of Poles of German descent who had declared loyalty to Germany.
These good people, who had been so harshly treated by fate, provided me with the semblance of a normal life in the very midst of that cruel war. Mrs. Czapla even took me with her to Vienna instead of Zuza, who had just then come down with some infectious disease. She took me to an amusement park there. I remember as if today my emotions when I was hurtling down at head-spinning speed on a huge Ferris wheel, the largest one I had ever seen.
Nor will I forget another situation in which my benefactors were involved. Once Mr. and Mrs. Czapla, Zuza, and I were walking down what today is Korfanty Avenue. Mr. Czapla was in uniform. We were approaching the theater, when suddenly a woman whom I recognized as our prewar building caretaker called out to him, half in German, half in Polish. He walked up to her, and she asked him whether he knew who the girl was who was with him and immediately added, “She’s a Jew; I know her.” Mr. Czapla grabbed his pistol, called her a Polish pig, and threatened to personally shoot her if she let out so much as a word. She ran away terrified, apologizing.
But that was not the end of it. She appeared in our lives once again in a similar situation. Namely, some time later, she ran into Mama and then started shouting in broken German, “What’s that Jewess doing here?” Some military officer stopped, but Mama kept her cool. She spoke German fluently and acted outraged. She called the woman crazy and made the officer intercede on her behalf.
So Katowice was not a safe city for us, and danger could come from the least expected direction. Before the war, this malicious caretaker was very poor and had several children. Mama used to send her a piece of cake every week and got repaid only with hatred. At that time, the woman still did not yet know she would fall victim to her own aggression. When after the war Mama told a Russian officer with whom she was friendly about our experiences, he found the woman and shot her with his pistol.
I lived with Mr. and Mrs. Czapla until liberation, probably almost a year. I lived in a German apartment building, where the other residents greeted me on the stairs with “Heil Hitler, kleine [little girl].” I always responded with “Guten Tag” [Good Day] or “Guten Abend” [Good Evening]. I knew that every one of them would have denounced me if they had figured out my origins, and I remembered that there were plenty of people walking the streets of Katowice who knew about us.
I couldn’t free myself from fear even for a moment, despite having “good looks”—Aryan features, blond hair—and despite the fact that Polish was my native language and that I had learned German. I tried to leave the house as seldom as possible, especially after the incident with the caretaker. Even going out to the store might occasion a dramatic episode. I remember once when a tall, middle-aged civilian stepped out of line and slapped an older woman in the face because she had asked the saleslady for something in Polish.
After the war everything got turned around. Mr. and Mrs. Czapla did not want to run away from the Russians; they felt they were Poles. Mr. Czapla, as a German policeman, however, was quickly arrested. He was supposedly beaten. When mother found out about this, she went at once to the militia, and, invoking her Jewish origins and her husband’s Communist activities, told them about everything the Czaplas had done for us and secured his release. This is the only way we repaid our unselfish benefactors. Nevertheless, they had to emigrate and left for East Germany. We corresponded with each other for some time but later lost contact. Mr. Czapla died there a few years later.
During this last year of the war, I did not see Mama very often, because we were hiding in different places. Mama was staying with Mrs. Szwestkowa on what today is Żwirko i Wigura Street. She was a woman of modest means who lived on the sixth floor in the garret of an apartment building. She was the building caretaker, just like our previous benefactor. I remember that apartment, the tall staircase, the long, L-shaped corridor, and the one small room. Mrs. Szwestkowa lived there, crowded in with Mama, for many months. Her husband, like all Silesians, was in the German army at that time, and her son had been killed, although I don’t remember under what circumstances. She was a simple, honest woman. I also stayed the night at her place several times, in total, certainly more than a month.
The Czaplas knew that Papa was a Jew, but Mama usually did not disclose her own origins. She maintained that she had a room in Katowice and wanted people to think that we lived there at least part of the time. From time to time, she would visit me and say, “I have to take Bronia [Bronisława] now; she can’t spend all of her time with you. She has to live with me in her own house a little, too.” Instead of taking me to her nonexistent room in Katowice, she would take me to spend the night at Mrs. Szwestkowa’s place. Mrs. Szwestkowa, of course, was helping us out of the goodness of her heart, because Mama had no money by then. Nor was she able to repay her after the war, either.
We were also helped by Dr. Schubert, the parish priest of St. Mary’s Church, the second oldest and most important Catholic church in Katowice after the Cathedral. Mama knew him already from before the war, although I don’t know how. He assisted us financially. We used to go to the parish where Mama would give his two sisters manicures. They clipped out food ration cards for us, which we ourselves, of course, didn’t receive at all. Following all the holidays, they would give us cakes to take home. The priest’s sisters bought me shoes and tights, as I remember.
They knew that Father was a Jew. Father Schubert did not insist on baptizing me; he declared it could wait until after the war, and then he did indeed try to convince me. Anyway, he continued to visit us many times. But one time he asked, “Bronia, would you like to learn the prayers?” I answered that I already knew them. I recited “Our Father”, “Hail Mary”, and “Angel of God”. I knew how to pray because Mrs. Czapla had taken me to church several times, and even before then, Zuza had taught me prayers—in Polish, of course. Dr. Schubert was very pleased and taught me several other things, gave me a little prayer book, and told me it would be good if I always carried it with me. He also presented me with a religious medallion, which I always wore from then on.
As fate would have it, Mama was quite soon able to repay the priest. Namely, he was arrested by the Germans and sent to Dachau. His terrified sisters pleaded with her to go there and give him a blanket into which they had sewn the names of some Germans who were willing to attest to his pro-German sympathies before the war. He was one of the few priests who had been willing to offer confessions to non-Polish-speaking Germans in their native language.
Dachau – one of the first German concentration camps to be established (1933), was located near Munich. Its first prisoners were political prisoners, but the number of Jews rose to about thirty per cent. Tens of thousands died there through starvation, disease, torture, or from cruel medical experiments.
The sisters gave Mama cigarettes and vodka to bribe the guard, and Mama went there and delivered the blanket. After a few days, the witnesses from the list he received were interrogated, and Father Schubert was allowed to return to his parish. He was very grateful to Mama. Where did she, being a Jew, muster enough courage to go deep into Germany and mill around a concentration camp to bribe a guard? She was always very brave. Before the ghetto was set up, she traded in food products between Sosnowiec and Katowice. She could always keep a cool head in difficult situations. I assume she must have had some Aryan papers, but I don’t know anything about it.
The priest, having been released from a German prison, after liberation, ended up in a Polish one. Someone reported that he had returned from Dachau suspiciously quickly, considering that so very few returned at all. Unable to help in any way at the local level, Mama this time set out for Warsaw to the Ministry of Religions. She told them everything about herself and about what Father Schubert had done for us and explained the circumstances of his release from Dachau. He was soon released from this second prison but was not allowed to return to his parish. He took over the parish in Godula, a district of Ruda Śląska. Grateful to us, he visited us nearly every month for many years. He passed away a dozen years or so ago.
We were also helped by Mrs. Kaźmierczak who would invite us over for a meal from time to time and also send us home with something. Mr. Sitek, the owner of a bakery, used to give Mama bread. I also remember the names of Mrs. Świtałowa and also of Mrs. Ronczoszkowa, who, when Mama came to give her manicures, always asked Mama to tell her about what the Germans were doing to the Jews. The result was that after Mama’s visit, she would quarrel with her husband, who I believe was an SA official. The crazy fanatic threatened that he would shoot the manicurist himself, whereupon his wife assured him that she would then poison him. Consequently, Mama went to visit Mrs. Ronczoszkowa only when her husband had gone away somewhere for a fairly long time.
SA/Sturmabteilungen were Nazi storm troopers; also called “Brown Shirts”.
Benefiting from the help of all these people, we survived the war. The long-awaited liberation came on January 27, 1945. I think that not many Jews in Poland experienced such a long period of suffering, from the beginning of September 1939 to the end of January 1945. Nonetheless, we survived.
After the war we went to our old apartment. The caretaker had the keys, which she handed over to us with some resistance. The apartment was completely empty. The German occupying it had vacated it probably some two months earlier. The empty interior reminded us too much of our former life, of our murdered family. We did not want to live there. An acquaintance told Mama about empty apartments in the center of Katowice. Mama managed to get one allocated to us.
When we showed up in our new place, there were three former Auschwitz prisoners living there. They were trying to regain strength before returning to their homes. In exchange for bread and something to eat, they had given the neighbors all the more valuable furniture in the apartment. Now they very much regretted having done it to the wife of a fellow inmate. After they were rested, Mama arranged with some Russians who were quartered nearby to have them taken home by automobile. For a long time afterward we battled with the big Auschwitz bedbugs they left behind. Later, a Russian officer was quartered in one of the rooms, and it was he who shot our prewar caretaker. I live in that apartment to this day.
During the occupation I experienced jaundice and suffered from painful lesions on my scalp. Just after the war, I came down with whooping cough. My lungs were weakened, and I spent three months recovering in a Jewish sanitarium. I remember the big bars of chocolate we received there every day, but which, not being used to such rich food, I couldn’t eat. I was short for my age and very skinny. Not surprising, since I had suffered from constant hunger. The delicacy I used to dream about was a slice of bread, toasted in an oven and spread with margarine.
I was supposed to go to school September 1, 1939. As fate would have it, I ended up attending only more than five years later. During the occupation, an acquaintance, a former teacher, taught me just reading, writing, and a little arithmetic. After the war, I started my education in the third grade. I was older than my classmates. Perhaps, so that I would not feel inferior, Mama declared that I was born in December 1934, nearly three years later than in reality. Since then, I have been living with various dates of birth.
Mama and I were the only ones left. Some aunt on my father’s side of the family, who had been living in Canada for years, corresponded with us for a time. She was childless, wealthy, and single and wanted very much for me to come live with her. Mama, afraid of being left alone, obsessively broke off correspondence and burned her address.
I did not pursue higher education. We were poor; I had to take evening courses to finish lyceum and beauty school. I often think that if Papa had lived, things would have been much easier for me, both materially and emotionally. In 1960 I started my own family, in which I am very happy. I have a loving husband and two sons. I am a member of the Jewish Community, of TSKŻ [Jewish Social and Cultural Association], and recently, of the Association of Children of the Holocaust.
The war released energy and determination in Mama, which she had never shown before or since. To the end of her life, however, she kept an amazing clarity of mind. She lived on for forty-eight years. She tried to forget. She soon formed a relationship with a man who was not Jewish. We didn’t talk about our wartime experiences with each other.
Sometimes, however, especially later in life, she would mention our murdered Pawełek. She almost never spoke about her family. She lost them all—Lusia, her beloved sister, the youngest of her five siblings, who had been single; her sister, Frania Perces, with her husband and daughter; her brothers, Aron and Józek, the latter a Communist who left for Russia even before the war (where all traces of him were lost); and her parents, my grandparents, who lived in Zawiercie.
I remember my grandparents. I loved my grandmother, Laja Kerner, very much. Not far from their house was a carousel. Grandma used to give me small change for it, keeping it a secret from Grandfather, who was quite stingy, warning me not to let him see me there. On the carousel, my heart pounding madly, I would look all around to see if he was watching.
Grandma was lucky. She had a bad heart and died of natural causes at the beginning of the occupation and was buried in the Jewish cemetery. Her parents—named Altman, I think—were still alive then. I remember them, too, but of course, only faintly (they were my great-grandparents). They lived in a village called Żarki, on the edge of a forest. They were already quite elderly. They had a goat. Grandma, after milking it, would come looking for me with a jug of milk, but I would run away and hide because I didn’t like goat’s milk at all.
Mama also mentioned something, it seems to me, about a sister of my grandmother, an aunt of hers, by the name of Bergner. Grandfather had a sister, apparently named Szwarzbaum, who had a house in a suburb of Częstochowa, in Raków-Błeszno. All these names, however, no longer mean anything to me; I can recall them now only because I once wrote them down on a piece of paper that I just rediscovered. I know nothing about my grandparents on my father’s side. I think perhaps they lived near Olkusz or Oświęcim.
Everything I have written about here belongs now to the distant past. Not for me, however, since for me it is constantly alive and painful. I am grateful that someone will be able to read about how I survived in Katowice among people who did not even know whether they were Poles, Silesians, or Germans but helped us instinctively from the heart. Only in this way can I repay them. I am happy that I could write about my murdered family, who now live only in my memory. I am not even sure whether my memory has not failed me at some points in this account. I had no notes, Mama died five years ago, and I was only a child during those nightmarish years. I believe, however, that despite these limitations, the description of my history makes some sense.