Bronka Niedźwiecka, born in 1928
I only lived in hope
I was very lucky. I was born into an honest Jewish family blessed with numerous siblings. All the evil of the world conspired, however, that this good fortune would pass as if it were a fleeting dream…
I was delivered at birth by an ordinary country midwife, a Polish woman, our local midwife who appeared in our home many times. I always regarded her as my “granny.” She loved me and brought me the nicest freshest eggs “straight from the hen.” I was a healthy happy child, full of song and dance. My older siblings knew Yiddish. I, a “shiksele”, spoke exclusively Polish. I was loved by my parents and spoiled by my brothers and sisters – obviously, the youngest. My spiritual sup- port was my older sister Dorotka.
Shiksele, or little shiksa, meaning a non-Jewish female, is used affectionately here for a child who does not seem very Jewish.
Two small houses in the small town of Poraj, and next to them, a railroad track, a forest, a river, and nearby, a big city—there it was, my entire world. My dearest papa, a teacher by profession, learned in the Scriptures, was a very erudite person. He wrote books and worked on a Greek-Hebrew lexicon. Papa liked to lift me up high and then tuck me inside the big dining room sideboard, where I played happily among little bottles and jars, establishing a sense of order within me permanently. These are my early remembrances. I was then perhaps one and a half years old, perhaps two.
Friday evenings, Sabbath eve, the first little star in the sky. How spiritual were those evenings in our home!
The table set with a fragrant table cloth, Two candles in old candlesticks.
Warm-hearted family all around.
Mama blesses the light of the candles and cries.
She hides her face in her hands—as if she had a premonition…
Before the Passover holidays, the whole house was cleaned. The holiday of spring. The holiday of joy. In an enormous chest, which stood in the hallway, were lots of holiday dishes. A large wicker basket filled with matzos. A sweet home-brewed wine from raisins—my papa’s pride. A new dress sewn by a local dressmaker. The table set in a festive fashion, and an open place at it, the table setting for the mystery guest. I always waited for him to appear…
On Purim, just before the war broke out, my brother, Marian and I, acted out performances written by our older siblings on current topics. Only fragments have been retained in my faulty memory. On my head, I had a cap of blue and white tissue paper and a royal mantel. Marian wielded a cardboard sword in his hand and exclaimed threateningly, like a Fascist, “Jude verrecke! Deutschland erwache! (Jews, drop dead/go to Hell! Germany awake!) Heil Hitler! I’ll fix you!”
I, the Jewish people, answered him with a poem which had the following ending: “We are alive, we shall remain alive, because there is power within us! We shall survive all our enemies, a happy Purim night will continue!” The audience was bursting with laughter.
But the year 1939 is already approaching. They can already be heard. The hordes are marching. The world is becoming flooded with the mumbo jumbo of Fascism. In a cattle car, on straw, humiliated, scorned, famished, I am on my way to a Lager. I am going to the land of the masters in order to work as a slave under duress for five long years.
Mama is seriously ill with a heart ailment from worry, Papa, already bestially murdered in the prison in Opole. My brothers and sisters are wandering around the world fleeing the Fascists. We lived right near Zawiercie, close to the German border. The war came upon us very quickly. But our home still exists, and in it, Mama, Dorota, my sister, Ester, and the three-year-old little daughter of my oldest sister, Zosia.
Was it perhaps not better that I happened to be the one taken to the camp and not my sister, Dorota, who supported the whole family? While it is true that they were surrounded by friends, nonetheless, one could encounter base people, as well, such as this Wieczorek woman. While I was still there, she got a German sent to us so that he would assign our apartment to her. The Silesian German arrived, and, with big steps, measured the length and breadth of everything and then proclaimed, “May lightning strike! This family is to remain here!” But that was only 1940.
Now, I am writing from camp, “Mama, don’t worry about me. I go to work, but I manage. Send me a jug for soup and a piece of soap.” By some miracle, both my cards and the replies were preserved. “Our dearest little daughter, be careful near the machines. Bear up! Soon, we shall see you! Hold your head up high! Mut verloren—Alles verloren!” (When the spirit is lost—Everything is lost).
As soon as I arrived in the camp in Gross-Rosen, Kommando-Parschnitz, our transport was taken over by a German woman, a Lagersführerin (camp leader), a heavyset blonde, the type of “blonde beast” that never parts with her riding whip. She looked me over thoroughly and …stroked my head. For the next few days, when I returned from work, she placed a large cup of warm milk in front of me.
From the labor camp to our work was six kilometers (one way). At four o’clock in the morning – roll call. They count us off. It never took place without vulgar shouting, insults, beatings, and shoving us around. In the dark and in the cold, I carry in my limp hand a jug of turnip soup. We are walking in a tight group. We take turns sleeping during the march. We pass by the windows of German homes, the light of lamps, curtains…
Please God, let me survive, return home to Mama, to warm comfortable bed linen, under the protective wings of Dorota! Next to the machine, it is wet and filthy. On my feet, clogs. But I can already get it started myself. On the other side, a robust German woman worker. Soon, a young Jewish girl will take her place. Here, nobody gets sentimental. We are toiling to survive. Tiny hands fit the steel spools well. And verses arrange themselves in my head:
Every day, when the sun begins its course,
A German machine rumbles above me,
Menacing at times—as if eager for vengeance,
As if it understood, as if it were living!
At times the machine rattles more gently.
I know—she cries over my fate…
But it also happens, that my machine
Is in a rage and angry at me!
Menacingly, it grinds waltzes over me,
It injures my fingers to the flesh with its “Flügeln,”
Iron curses and steel scoffs at me,
My machine despises me!!!
Miserable am I—a Jewish girl.
I was friendly with Rachela for a whole year. She might have been fourteen years old. Light hair and blue eyes. We washed laundry together every Sunday. She was spitting out larger and larger pieces of her lungs; her eyes were burning with fever. She died of tuberculosis in the camp infirmary where a German Jewish woman, Litzi, was working as a doctor. I was then composing poems about spirits, “demons of the German factory,” and, among them, about “demons of disease,” that “dish out TB to children.” It was they, those demons, faithful “buddies of the Führer” that were calling out to us:
Let them spit blood, let them cough aloud!
Let them spit out their lungs with coughing!
Let the fever break through pale cheeks with a bloody glow!
Camp regime was getting more severe. Letters from home stopped arriving. Going to work was getting more and more difficult. The laced-up shoes in which I arrived were pinching; my feet were growing. I injured myself to the very bone at the machine. Conditions were getting worse. The camp was now a concentration camp, a branch of Gross-Rosen. At night, the SS men came for a selection. They sat, spread out in their chairs, and we paraded in front of them naked, barely alive. Next day, again a few of us would be missing, considered not capable of working for the Third Reich.
I learned to knit, and thanks to that, I soon had warm stockings and some kind of a shirt out of the yarn from my machine. By then, I wore only one dress. In my other one, the warmer one, enormous lice had nested. I never saw anything like it in my life. We were also being devoured by millions of bedbugs. When, on a Sunday, debugging took place, bed bugs paraded in a large, mobile, bloodthirsty carpet. In spite of it, at night, we slept as if dead, so great was our exhaustion.
One day, a group of Hungarian girls arrived. They all had shaved heads. Among them was a splendid singer. Very beautiful. We had exceptionally good fortune; she was willing to sing an aria from an opera for us. It was extraordinary. The next day, they were taken away to a death camp, to the very last one.
But at this point, the worst thing happened. I fell into a state of indifference. Totally. I was now only Number 21529. Nothing more. The only thing that then kept me alive was the hope that I would find my family, there where I had left them.
Among us, there were no people with higher education. The “intelligentsia” went on the first train to Auschwitz-Birkenau. At that time, I thought that perhaps they would be better off there; after all, death brought liberation.
An empty elevator cab served as a detention cell. Here, people were kept locked up on bread and water. A beautiful lively girl would be led in, and out would come a demented ghost which later lay abandoned in the yard, in mud, often in a restraining jacket. That is what was done with the lovely Etel when she was caught after receiving a little note from one of the French laborers working nearby.
What saved us was that we were not marched along the “death route”. “The selected ones” from all the other camps were marched through our camp. Men and women were walking—human skeletons in rags. They were herded along by German soldiers. I remember that once, when a new group that was walking the “death route” arrived, two raw potatoes lay in the courtyard. One of the prisoners wanted to pick them up. Another one got there ahead of him, and a scuffle ensued. A Gestapo man walked up and shot them both. The potatoes stayed on the ground. Some people were shoved into a hall behind the wall for a brief time. The nocturnal lamentations and screaming have persisted in my ears all my life. Today, the pleas for death bring to mind Dies Irae by Penderecki.
Dies Irae – Wrath of God, written after the war by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki.
On May 9, 1945, Soviet troops opened up the gates of our camp. Czech partisans appeared. They set about clearing the area of mines. I was extremely ill and was not able to enjoy the freedom. For a certain time still, I remained in the camp infirmary. And then, in my one and only little dress, without a cent to my name, I traveled to where Mama, Dorota, and the rest of the family were sent to the ghetto. Here, after arriving at my destination, I lived through the worst moment of my life. I did not find anybody, not a single blessed soul.
Today, I visualize myself as I trudged, tiny, emaciated (I then weighed 33 kg), over the cobblestones as if in some terrible state of horror. The street is long. I don’t see anyone. I only know that I survived to no avail, because I ended up alone in this dreadful cold world. I cry aloud, without interruption. I sob as never before and never afterward.
By night, homeless and miserable, I slept wherever I could, on an empty verandah, on some bed of planks in an abandoned apartment. I don’t know what I ate or drank. I finally dragged myself to where we once lived. I knocked on the door of a lady whom I knew from childhood, Mrs. Walusiowa. An elderly, childless, simple woman, widow of a railroad worker, she welcomed me warmly, like her own child. We went to sleep in one bed over which hung lots of holy pictures.
At night, we were awakened by pounding on a window, and I heard a male voice, “Are there any Jews here?” Our hearts beat stronger, but I felt no fear. My beloved Mrs. Walusiowa jumped out of bed and yelled back, “Get out of here! Nobody is here!” They went off. I remained at Mrs. Walusiowa’s several days. We were visited in the daytime by old acquaintances and friends.
Soon, a miracle happened. My brother, a soldier in the First Kościuszko Division, returned from the war. He found me. Now, I was no longer alone. But the experiences from my stay in the camp let themselves be remembered; my legs refused to obey. I stopped walking. Nobody could make a diagnosis. Taking tiny steps, leaning on a cane, I would move back and forth across the room. The urge to live and strength of will prevailed. I succeeded in overcoming this post oc- cupational disability. The years that followed also did not spare me. But that is already another story…
First Kościuszko Division – the First Polish Army, which was under Soviet command.
Warsaw, November–Deember 1992