Bronisława Wajngarten, born in 1933
Run to the Woods!
It is with greatly mixed emotions that I approach the writing of my story, of my t ragic life. Yet I have the hope that in this way perhaps someone will find me and I will not be so lonely and a total orphan for the remaining days of my life, to the very end.
I was supposedly born on September 10, 1933, in Drohobycz—that is what my baptismal certificate states (I didn’t have a birth certificate)—and at present, I have an official identification document issued on the basis of this certificate. My baptism took place in Borysław in 1942 with the help of my Polish guardians, Maria and Zygmunt Gamski.
What I want to write about is hazily inscribed in my memory—a memory that has not preserved everything, no doubt due to the shock of having seen my family murdered before my eyes.
During one of the first roundups in Drohobycz—it seems it was the cold November of 1941—I was living with my aunt and her two daughters in the center of Drohobycz, probably on Borysławska Street. My mother and I had made our way there, probably with my younger sister, after we were forced to flee Młynki—a suburb of Drohobycz. Our Ukrainian neighbors there virtually forced us to leave our home, undoubtedly wanting to save us from the Germans.
My aunt’s name was Frajdenhajm (I am not writing this name using German spelling, in as much as that is probably how Jewish names in Galicia were written). My name is Bronia Wajngarten. Although my memory of that also is not certain, fortunately, I have an official document with it, issued by Dr. Rajnhold, the head of the Judenrat [Jewish council] in the Drohobycz ghetto, and that is how my name was spelled in the letter he passed on to my later guardians. The haze that surrounds my memories has nonetheless allowed me to clearly remember my name as well as the strict instructions that I was never to acknowledge it or admit to being Jewish if I wanted to stay alive. But I am getting a bit ahead with these explanations.
Jewish names in Galicia – in actuality, the German spelling of names was common in Galicia, for example, “Freidenheim” and “Weingarten”.
I remember myself as a seven-year-old, blue-eyed, blond girl, endowed with so-called “good looks”. In a rather large milk can, I used to bring home remains of food that German soldiers, stationed in the barracks on Truskawiecka Street, would give me. I truly don’t know how I managed to get in there, but this was the only meal for our entire family. Already at that time my father was no longer with us, having been murdered in Borysław. Perhaps I was there with my mother. I see before me a large square on which were lying naked human bodies, massacred in a horrible manner— it looked like an animal slaughterhouse. Such an image still looms in front of my eyes. My father had light-colored hair. He reportedly worked in the refinery called Galicja in Drohobycz.
But I must get back to the description of the death of my mother, sister, aunt, and my aunt’s two daughters. It was early morning. I think we lived in the annex of a large apartment building. Trucks drove up there, and the Germans ordered us to get out of our apartments and loaded us onto the trucks like cattle, naturally, under the threat of automatic pistols pointed in our direction. We were taken to a forest not far from Drohobycz; it was probably in Dereżyce—this is a name that rattles around in my head—but it could have also been in a forest near Bronica in the direction of Sambor. At least that is what Thomas Sandkühler wrote in his doctoral thesis, The “Final Solution” in Galicia: The Murder of the Jews in Eastern Poland and the Rescue Initiative by Berthold Beitz. (_)
The “Final Solution”… – “Endlösung” in Galizien: der Judenmord in Ostpolen und die Rettungsinitiativen von Berthold Beitz 1941–1944 (Berlin: Detz Verlag, 1996).
We were placed in a single long file near the forest, where ditches had already been dug. I can’t explain why I was not with my mother and my other relatives. I was the last one, and at the end of the line stood a young man in a German uniform—but not in the uniform of the SS—with a rifle ready to fire. The command was given, “Fire!” In a fraction of a second, the young man grabbed me by the hand, shielded me with his body, and yelled, “Run to the woods!” The woods were right there, and the brush was high enough that I couldn’t be seen. My instinct for survival made me listen to that soldier. It seems to me that I saw my mother—her look of approval is before my eyes—and then, when I was running through the woods, all I could hear were bursts of gunfire and horrible screams. How long I ran at this frantic pace and how I ended up in the city, in Drohobycz—I don’t know. Somebody took me to Dr. Józef Rajnhold, who was probably already the chairman of the Judenrat by then. This man tried to save me at all costs. There is proof of this in a letter he wrote in November 1942, which was supposed to be sent to America after the war but ended up in my hands in 1953. After pulling me out of the ghetto, Dr. Rajnhold found a young, childless Jewish couple for me. Their names were Lusia and Leon Waldberg, and at that time they ran a photography studio called Artis in Drohobycz (my photographs from that period have survived). Wanting to save me, they were the first ones to insist that I learn the prayers such as “Our Father” and “Hail Mary”.
However, when the sword of destruction was about to reach them as well, they turned me over to a Polish family, Mr. and Mrs. Gamski, who lived at Polmin, a well-known oil refinery in Drohobycz. They baptized me and gave me their last name, but the hunt for Jews was very intense. When it was discovered that the Gamskis were hiding a Jewish child (my adopted father was persecuted), they were forced to send me to Kraków to Lusia Waldberg’s brother, Kunysz, who worked for the railroad and went by the name of Kunicki. It is difficult to describe here how I had to travel all alone from Drohobycz to Kraków, how, guided by my self-preservation instinct, I rode in a wagon marked Nur für Deutsche [only for Germans] and sang an old German love song, “Drunten in der Lobau hab’ ich ein Mädel geküsst” [Down in the Lobau I Have Kissed a Maiden]—for which I received food—not knowing what I was singing or what impression I was making on the other passengers.
Lobau is a town in Saxony with a popular summer spa.
Mr. Kunicki placed me with the Sisters of the Presentation in Kraków who ran an elementary school and a high school on St. John Street. Documents have been preserved there, including my certificate for completing the fourth grade in the school year 1943–44. On the certificate is written: “Religion: Roman-Catholic, Father’s Name: Edmund”—although in reality, his name was Zygmunt (Gamski). Could it already have been foreseen “on high” that my husband for forty-six years would be someone named Edmund?
Life in the convent was not easy. I had to get up in the morning before six o’clock, because at six o’clock I took part in the first Holy Mass, pumping the organ bellows in the organ loft (at that time there were no electric organs as yet). In this way, with the force of my feeble arms, I helped the organist to operate the organ, and I also sang. The sisters said that God had given me a good voice and that was the way to thank him for such a gift.
Unfortunately, the subsidies paid by Mr. Kunicki for my stay in the convent came to an end, and I quickly found myself in an orphanage in Kochanów near Kraków, on the main road from Kraków to Katowice. I did not admit to being Jewish to anyone in this large orphanage. I was there with other children who had lost their parents during the war, but, as it turned out, at the end of the war many of them found their parents and families. I, however, did not. I must absolutely mention one thing, as there is currently an ongoing discussion in Poland in the Catholic Church whether girls should be allowed to serve during Mass. In the West it is already a widely accepted practice. I performed this role already in 1944 and 1945. My duties included adorning the altar, preparing the hosts and communion wafers—which I bought twelve kilometers away in Kraków in a special store run by the Salvatorian priests—accompanying the priest behind the railing, reciting the entire liturgy in Latin, ringing the bells, and furnishing the altar with wine and water.
Quite often I also played the accordion, especially on Sundays, when my male colleagues served at Mass. Our chapel in the orphanage served as a church for the local population of Kochanów and Zabierów. Thus I was probably one of the first girls in Poland to serve at Mass. Salvatorian priests from Kraków were in charge of our chapel. Father Wojciech Olszówka was one of them. It was he who in October 1945, when only a few children remained in the orphanage (I don’t know whether he suspected my Jewish origins but probably not), decided to look after me and took me to his parents in Katowice-Ligota, where the kindhearted Mr. and Mrs. Olszówka took me under their care. I stayed with them for five years. Then fate sent me to Wejherowo, where in 1952 I graduated from high school, simultaneously finishing a special course for the first group of teachers of the Russian language. I received the assignment to work at a police officers’ school in Słupsk.
This was the end of my experiences under the occupation, but my inner hiding did not end. My later fortunes took various turns, and during the turmoil in Poland in 1968, my husband and I lost our jobs, just because I was Jewish (he was not). The authorities knew this perfectly well, even though I thought they were unaware of it.
…“turmoil in Poland in 1968 – in 1968, there were student demonstrations in Poland against government censorship. They were crushed by the Communist regime and blamed on “Zionists” (some of the students and professors who backed them were Jewish). A wave of anti-Zionism and antisemitism followed. Jews were accused of not being loyal to Poland and were often demoted or summarily dismissed from their jobs. Many Jews who had survived in Poland or returned to Poland after the war then emigrated (about 30,000).
I want to note that being “thrown overboard” made me stronger. I had to search for new social circles and attempt to adjust myself to a new reality. In effect, after spending twenty years at my job and reaching the age of forty, I made a risk-taking decision—to embark on the study of German philology. After a difficult six years of study, in 1980, I received a master’s diploma in German philology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań.
The title of my master’s thesis, written in German, was Das Bild Galiziens in den Prosawerken von Josef Roth [The View of Galicia in the Prose of Josef Roth]. In this way I wanted to at least get a bit closer to my home area, of which I knew so little!
I have written down these reminiscences in the hope that through them I might still be able to find relatives. Perhaps among the readers there will be someone whom fate has brought in contact with someone from my family. I would ask that any information be sent to the Association of the Children of the Holocaust in Warsaw at 6 Twarda Street.
I am awaiting the moment when I will be able to forget about everyday things, and the gates of my childhood—which to this day lie hidden so deeply in the abyss of oblivion—will swing wide open in front of me.