Elżbieta Ficowska, born in 1942
I know my parents’ faces only from my imagination
I was born in the Warsaw Ghetto. This I know for certain. My birth certificate is a small silver spoon engraved with my name and birth date, a salvaged accessory of a salvaged child. Other than that, little is certain. I am trying to sort out scraps of information that I have been collecting for years. I am forever looking for people who might remember something.
Despite the passage of time, I cannot abandon hope that someone may have preserved photos of my mother and father. Perhaps this someone does not know that these are my parents or that I am searching for traces of them all over the world. I have seen so many pictures of nameless Jews and old German film chronicles. I always stare searchingly at them, and sometimes I succumb to the illusion that I might somehow recognize my loved ones, although I really know that this is impossible. I don’t know their real faces. I only see them in my imagination.
I was seventeen years old when I accidentally learned that everything I then knew about myself was not true. My mama did not give birth to me at all. She only took a six-month-old infant under her care. My parents and my family perished, and I am a miraculously saved Jewish child. This miracle certainly would not have happened if not for wonderful people capable of the utmost sacrifice.
My adopted mama, Stanisława Bussold, was a midwife and cooperated with Żegota. Her clandestine contact was Mrs. Irena Sendler, who did all that was humanly possible to save Jewish children. My adopted mother delivered the babies for Jewish women in hiding. She sheltered the children in her own home and, together with people who could be trusted, arranged suitable documents for them and searched for safe shelters for her small charges with Polish families.
Irena Sendler was one of the main leaders of the Żegota movement.
As for me, I stayed with her permanently. She offered me happiness and a childhood full of love. Years later, when I already knew my true story, I learned from my mother’s stepson that it was he who personally transported me out of the ghetto to the Aryan side. He was a building contractor and had a pass to enter the ghetto. He transported bricks. He recounted how a wooden case with holes was placed amid the bricks, and inside it, was an infant—me—who had been put to sleep.
From that time on began for me a happy, and, as it turned out, a safe life. I had no awareness of what had happened earlier or what was yet to happen in the place from which I had been retrieved in the last minute, just before the last stage of the annihilation of my world which never managed to become my world.
When I found myself on the Aryan side, in addition to my adopted mama, there was waiting for me my good and beloved nanny, who was with me a long time, until I matriculated. She told me, much later, that my birth mother called from time to time on the telephone, and that she would ask that the telephone receiver be passed to me, at least for a moment. She undoubtedly longed for me. Perhaps she wanted to assure herself that I still existed and to hear my babbling… What a shame that I could not understand her words or remember them. In October 1942, she telephoned for the last time.
My nanny used to travel with me to Obozowa Street. Before the war, my grandfather, Aron Pejsach Rochman, had a tannery there. She made arrangements to see him when he went out of the ghetto with his work unit under German escort. She told him that I was to be baptized. Grandfather cried. He prepared a white dress and a small gold cross and had them delivered to me.
The only preserved document from that period of time is a notary act. In 1940, my father leased out his tannery in Wołomin. The act shows the name of the lessee, Mr. B., and the signature of my father, Josel Koppel. I succeeded in finding Mr. B. My birth mother used to meet him in the Court Building on Leszno Street. There, he would convey to her the payments due under their terms of agreement. My mother, Henia Koppel, maiden name Rochman, may have then been twenty-two or twenty-three years old. She was a beautiful, slim blonde with big, green eyes. Father was much older than she, tall, black-haired and black-eyed…
The Court Building on Leszno Street in Warsaw stood between the ghetto and the Aryan side. It was possible to enter this building from the ghetto side and meet people from the Aryan side. It was one of the few places where such interchanges were possible. The building still exists today.
Years later, I met a man in Florida who used to be friendly with my father. He confirmed that this was just how he looked and added that Father was a financier and a banker and had promised to marry off his daughter––me––to his son. It was with much emotion that I met the chosen one, Adam. I was already a married woman.
A former classmate of my mother read my notice in a newspaper, one of my many such advertisements, that I was searching for people who remembered my family. She wrote to me from Israel. We became friends. She confirmed that my mother looked just as Mr. B. had described her. In one of her letters, she informed me that her sister-in-law in Tel Aviv had a suitcase with old photographs in her entresol, and that there, among other pictures, there might be a photograph of my mother from vacations in Michalin. It is difficult for an older lady to climb up into the entresol. I could not wait, so I took the trip to get this photo from her.
At Regina’s in Tel Aviv, there were many photographs from old days gone by. My mother’s picture was not among them. Regina remembered her. She had worked together with her in the ghetto, in the German factory of Toebbens, in the sewing department. Toebbens had forbidden workers to carry or bring children along with them to work. Just then, Regina happened to be standing at the entrance to the plant. My mother ran up to her, hurriedly thrust the bundled up baby in her arms, and disappeared for a few minutes. She returned, picked me back up, and, during a brief conversation, showed a checkbook from a Swiss bank. She said that if fate permitted us to survive, it would be possible to begin anew after the war, because this was solid protection. She went away, cuddling me in her arms, and such was the last encounter with her…
Regina followed by asking if I had located this bank in Switzer- land. No, I did not find it. I did not find anything. My twenty-four-year-old mother perished on November 3, 1943 in the camp in Poniatowa, along with all the prisoners of that camp. Father perished over a year earlier in Warsaw‘s Umschlagplatz, shot on the boarding platform, the moment he refused to get into the wagon.