Chuwcia Weicher, born in 1933
Only me and my sister survived
This is the first time that I am attempting to give an account of my wartime experiences. Time has managed to heal painful wounds, but it has also blurred much in my memory, such as the names of places where I was hiding, as well as the names of people who hid me, and those who were in hiding with me.
I come from Turka (Stanisławów province), a small town located today in the Western Ukraine. It was then inhabited primarily by Ukrainians and Jews. I lived with my parents, Bela and Wolf Weicher, Grandma Liba, and my sister, Estera, in our own single family house, in which was located the meat shop operated by my father.
From the war period, I remember the bombings of September 1939, the invasion of Soviet troops and my parents’ terrible fear that we might be deported into the depths of Russia, and, of course, the terrible German occupation when Jews had to wear armbands with the Star of David, the roundups, and the ever-present fear for one’s own life and the lives of loved ones. I remember that roundups initially affected disabled people, then the elderly, and then everyone, regardless of the state of their health or age. During one of the actions, we were caught by the Germans – Mama, my sister, and I. Mama’s sister was also there among those who had been assembled. Unexpectedly, one of the Germans mo- tioned us to leave. My dear aunt was then deported to a death camp.
The next stage was the creation of a ghetto, not in Turka, but in Sambor, and the decision of my parents to remain outside the ghetto. At the price of surrendering a substantial part of their possessions, they arranged a hiding place with an Aryan family. Grandma, Mama, my sister, and I went to the hiding place. Papa stayed free, because he was employed by the Germans as certified by the Kennkarte he possessed. It was supposed to protect him from being deported to a death camp. Our hiding place was located in a cellar with a camouflaged entrance leading to it. We spent the day there, while by night, we stayed in the apartment of the lady hiding us.
After a very short time, Grandma had to leave the hiding place. After leaving it, she was murdered by the Germans. After this tragedy, it became peaceful for a while, and that encouraged Mother to leave. My dear mama never returned to us again. Soon, the most tragic news reached us that both Mother and Father were caught and deported to a death camp (most likely Auschwitz).
My father’s brother, Anczel, the only one from the entire family who survived, retrieved us from our hiding place. In the hope that my mother’s sister who lived in the countryside on the Polish-Hungarian border had still survived, my sister and I set out to search for her. When we reached the village of Borynia, lying halfway to Hnyła, where my aunt had lived, we learned that my aunt and her family had crossed the border to the Hungarian side.
We spent the night in this village, and in the morning of the next day, we set out again on foot to return to Turka. I cannot be specific about how great these distances were. When we approached the outskirts of Turka, dusk had already fallen, and the streets were empty. Suddenly, we spotted Germans standing with huge wolfhounds at their feet. We were petrified, but we resolved to walk on. We succeeded. The Germans did not stop us, and we returned to Uncle Anczel in one piece. Not long afterward, he placed us on the outskirts of Turka with a peasant who knew our father. It was then the late fall of 1942, and we had lost our parents in August of that year. My sister and I lived with the rights of members of the family, but when a stranger approached, we hid in a secret place prepared under a bed. When Gypsies living in the vicinity learned of our existence, we had to flee from there.
The brother of our host led us on foot at night through the forest to the neighboring village of Bukowina. A house was located on a hill beyond the village. In it lived the two brothers Ilnicki with their families and with their single sister, Mańka, who was considered abnormal. Her large stature, frightfully crossed eyes, and shrieking voice attracted attention. She was ensconced with all that she owned, namely, with her goat, in a room that had a dirt floor.
We moved in with one of the brothers, Andrej, in one room together with his three children and his wife, Justyna. We slept on top of the stove where bedbugs bothered us a great deal. We ate together with the children from a common bowl, mainly plain potatoes or soupy oat flour cooked in water. The greatest delicacy was oat flour gathered by us from the hand mill. One day, during the winter of 1943, some people we did not know appeared who turned out to be Jews hiding in the nearby forests. As it turned out, they had been companions of our Uncle Anczel. After a time, some of them moved in with the brother of Andrej. When the news reached the Germans about Jews in hiding, they organized a raid. During the shooting, several persons perished, and those remaining were deported to the ghetto in Sambor. Some of them managed to escape from the ghetto and return to Bukowina. From them, we learned that our sole guardian, Uncle Anczel, was no longer alive. I don’t remember the circumstances under which he perished.
After the return of these Jews to Bukowina, it became dangerous there. A short time later came the next raid, this time conducted by the Ukrainians together with the Germans. Again, several persons perished, and among them the family Zeifert, our close friends from Turka. Their little daughter, Krysia, born during the war, was left an orphan. In 1946, she found her way to our Children’s Home in Bielsko-Biała. At present, Krysia lives with her family in Haifa.
After these last events, the Jews went into the forest for good. It was already summertime. We alone remained in Bukowina, but we did not live in the house. For several weeks, the nearby thicket, where we spent entire days and nights, became our home. We subsisted on the fruits of the forest, mainly raspberries, which were plentiful at the time. Only occasionally, some food would be dropped off for us, because the area was under continuous German surveillance. Here, we lived through a moment that chilled the blood in our veins when Germans, searching the underbrush, stopped right near us. We saw clearly their green uni- forms and frantic faces. They apparently did not want to notice us.
Still that same summer, we were taken into the forest by Jews whom we knew. We spent the end of the summer, the fall, and the beginning of the winter with them. What has stuck in my memory from that period of time is sleeping under open skies while the temperature was between ten and twenty below zero. We would fall asleep by a burning fire that would die out during the night, and we would awaken covered with snow. It is astonishing that in those conditions nobody fell ill.
“twenty below zero” – centigrade, which is approximately between 12°F and – 5° F.
Our situation improved somewhat when we transferred to a bunker, but there, in the course of time, we came to be greatly bothered by an infestation of fleas. When one slept on the lower bunk, fleas would drop onto our faces like rain. Our only nourishment at that time was rye procured in a nearby country village which, after having been dried on a big plate, was ground in a coffee mill and then cooked in water from melted snow.
When the news reached us that the Germans were on our track, we had to abandon the bunker. We were, however, discovered by the Germans and attacked in the early spring of 1944. Several persons were killed, but my sister and I found ourselves among those who escaped death.
During the course of our day-long wanderings, my sister’s feet became frost-bitten, and when she was chilled and exhausted and could walk no further, our companions wanted to kill her. At my fervent plea that they not kill her, they carried her further, but I was always hanging back so as not to allow her to be abandoned. I must admit that I did not even feel any bitterness toward these people. I could not imagine life without her. The executioner of my sister was to be David, whom I met after the war in Gliwice. He couldn’t get over his amazement that she had grown into such an attractive young lady.
Because of our frostbitten feet, we could not walk any further. We remained in the village at the home of a woman with the surname Jasecha, who turned out to be extraordinary. Besides us, several other Jews were hiding at her place. One of them was discovered by the Germans and executed. They buried him next to the Jasecha home.
As to our feet, they were getting worse all the time. At first, the toes of our feet swelled up, then they darkened, and on a certain day, the blackened parts fell off. Oozing wounds opened up to live flesh and were treated by our hostess with soured milk. Treatment lasted for a long time, but, in the end, the wounds closed as scars formed over them. The frostbitten toes remained shorter, grown together, and without nails.
Before our wounds had yet healed, we underwent a search of houses by the Germans. Just before they showed up, our hostess packed us up inside sacks and carried us toward the river. The bleeding from our wounds marked the path along which Jasecha carried us, but the Germans surely thought that meat being carried to a hiding spot marked the trail. Once more we escaped death.
When our feet healed, we returned to Bukowina. This time we ended up with Mańka, because this place was considered to be the safest. We stayed with her and her goat in the same room, and when someone approached, we would conceal ourselves in a hiding spot. It was located in the place where the goat stood. A hole had been dug out there in which we sat as long as the situation called for it.
Under these conditions, we lasted until the beginning of the summer of 1944. Then, we joined our nomadic friends in the forest. One could sense the approaching front. Germans appeared in the forest, but they no longer frightened us. Bombardments could be heard closer and closer, and at one time, our burning fire became a target.
One such bombardment left an unforgettable impression. At the time when bombs were being dropped from the approaching airplanes, and while we were trying to extinguish our fire, pouring on it even that which had just been cooking, I heard the cry of a newborn. At that very moment, Sala gave birth to a little girl who was delivered by Małka, our seamstress. Other than the mother and Małka, nobody saw this child, and it was never among us.
It was at this time that a deserter from the Hungarian Army joined us. He was starved even more than we were, to such a degree that he was eating oak leaves and potato peelings. We, on the other hand, seasoned inhabitants of the forest, were, by then, nourishing ourselves not badly. In addition to picking berries and mushrooms, we not infrequently got hold of meat by slaughtering stray cattle. I remember an amusing story in connection with this meat. One of our companions, while roasting it in the open fire, fell asleep, burning his trousers and the delicate part of his body. When the front got to be already close, our Jews decided to cross it, leaving us with the sister of Justyna Ilnicki from Bukowina. This sister, much older than Justyna, was cooped up in a little mud hut, and her only property was a goat living with her. There I remained till liberation, whereas my sister found employment in a neighboring village as a helper with children.
My life with the old woman was difficult. In order to gather provisions for the approaching winter of 1944, we used to go to the village to dig for potatoes. We rose early in the morning and peeled potatoes by moonlight, only to have to report for digging as soon as it was dawn. At first, I was digging potatoes with the old woman, but later, I was entrusted with a different job, taking cows to pasture. There was also a horse. When I tried to chase him away from the beets, he reared up and kicked me in the stomach so hard that, for a moment, I lost consciousness.
One night, there was exceptional commotion. It turned out that liberation had arrived. In the morning, I went into the village to my sister’s, and I found that Soviet soldiers were in the house. They took me up on their knees, patted me, and assured me that from that moment on, I would not be hounded because of my origins.
I returned to Turka in the fall of 1944, a short time after liberation. I remember precisely the road along which I walked to town, barefoot and dressed in a shirt and skirt made from raw flax. I arrived in Turka already by evening and wound up in the house of a cousin of my father’s, Dina. How I learned of her existence, who showed me the way, and whether I went with somebody else or by myself, I don’t remember. I do know for sure that I went there without my sister, because she remained in the village for a while longer.
During my stay with the cousin, I began studying in a Ukrainian school. I knew the letters because my sister, who was a year older than I, had taught me the alphabet. The cousin was not particularly warm towards me, and I had to work a lot. The only joy I remember from being there was my first dress after the war, which was sewn from pillow ticking. Within the framework of repatriation, I arrived in Poland with my cousin and her husband, and I was placed in the Jewish Children’s Home in Bielsko-Biała. Here, after so many experiences, suffering, and wanderings, my life as a child began anew. I was brought to the children’s home in September 1945 on a sunny afternoon. Right away (I remember it so well), I received a toothbrush from Nurse Estera, which I had not had until then, and that is probably why this fact became so firmly implanted in my memory. Everything in this home was new for me, interesting, and out-of-the ordinary, but I was continuously sad. I missed my sister who did not come to Poland together with me. She remained in Turka with a married couple from the forest whose repatriation had been delayed. My happiness reached full measure in the spring of 1946 when my sister crossed the threshold of the children’s home in Bielsko-Biała.
Here, I was eager to try everything. In addition to studies, which I always treated very seriously and which at the beginning caused me much difficulty, I learned bookbinding, sewing, and dance. My difficulties with studies were understandable. After all, I had received no schooling through the entire war period. Until then, I had spoken only Yiddish and Ukrainian, and here, all of sudden, I had to switch to Polish. Moreover, I am nearsighted, and I did not wear glasses. Thanks to my intensive work, I finished elementary school with very good results. Due to the consolidation of homes for children in the summer of
1950, I found myself in the children’s home in Kraków. I wasn’t as happy there as in Bielsko in spite of the fact that the home was very nice and large and its director, cordial.
From Kraków, after completing high school in 1952, I went to Warsaw for medical studies, and I moved into a boarding house for Jewish youth on Jagiellońska Street. After a year, this residence was dissolved, and I lived in university dormitories through the remaining five years of studies, supporting myself only from a stipend.
When I began my professional work as a doctor, I had no place to live. From day to day, I delayed moving out from the university dormitory, until one day, when I returned from work, I found my bed already occupied. For many years, I wandered about, staying in the apartments of others, paying a lot of money to rent a room.
I was given my first apartment in 1966 when I was already thirty- three years of age. It was a studio apartment. It is difficult to describe my joy when, twenty-four years after leaving my family home, I entered my own apartment, closed the door, and found myself alone.