Emanuel Elbinger, born in 1931
They were surprised that we are still alive
I was born in Kraków. Until September 1942, I lived with my parents, Bernard and Rozalia, née Margules, Elbinger, and sisters, Pola and Lusia, in the town of Nowe Brzesko in the district of Kraków. Before the outbreak of World War II, I had finished the first grade of elementary school. I had to interrupt further education because of the order by German authorities prohibiting schooling for Jewish children.
Persecution of Jews began immediately after the German invasion. I remember beards being cut, beating, and elderly people being forced to run. My parents owned a store of cotton products which was closed on the order of German authorities. Their merchandise was confiscated and shipped to Miechów, the seat of the district administrative authorities at the time. My parents had managed beforehand to hide a part of the merchandise with friendly Polish families, and this was the basis of our support.
Around 1940, Jews over the age of thirteen were forced to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David. At the beginning of 1940, the ghetto was formed. Under the threat of a death penalty, Jews were forbidden to use any means of transportation or to step outside the confines of our small village. House searches and shootings of Jews then followed. Our family was ordered to vacate our apartment. We relocated to one small room. We were five persons – my parents, two sisters, and myself.
The deportation and liquidation of the Jewish population came in September of 1942. Before the expected deportation, my family dispersed among the various Polish families we knew. We presumed that the deportation would be partial and that one would be able to return home. Unfortunately, this was the final liquidation of the Jewish community. Polish peasants were ordered to ready horse-drawn wagons in which to transport all captured Jews. As I learned later, they were shot to death in the vicinity of Słomniki. During the shooting of the Jews, a local butcher managed to knife an SS man who, however, survived. During the deportation action, the old or handicapped were executed on the spot (this was how my grandmother perished). Those families found hiding in attics and cellars were also executed on the spot.
My youngest sister, Lusia, who was six years old, was placed for safety with a Polish family. On the day of deportation, she was brought by them to the place where Jews were being assembled and thus shared the fate of those being deported. Deportation actions began at daybreak, but in the darkness, many Jews managed to break out of the encircling ring which was made up of young fellows in the Baudienst (construction service). For several days, Jews wandered through neighboring fields. No one wanted to feed or shelter them. They reported themselves to the police or were captured. Notices were posted everywhere threatening the death penalty for hiding or assisting Jews. My young cousins, who after a while were handed over to the police, were poisoned to death at the station.
The Polish population was incessantly under the pressure of anti- Jewish propaganda. I recall the posters that were put up everywhere. To this day, I remember their text (as a child, I experienced a shock). I quote, “Stop and read, dear onlooker, how Jews beset you. Instead of meat, chopped rats, dirty water added to milk, and dough with worms, kneaded by foot.” Next to the text, there were drawings: a repulsive unshaven crooked-nosed Jewish butcher held a rat by the tail which he was sticking into a meat grinder. Another drawing presented a milkman pouring water from a washtub, adding it to a can of milk.
Because of disastrous sanitary conditions and hunger, an epidemic of typhus broke out among the Jewish population in town. Posters appeared “Jew – typhus – avoid Jews.”
Before the deportation action, my father was hiding with me at a peasant’s we knew by the name of Migas in the country village of Stręgoborzyce. We were accepted for a suitable payment and for a short time. We were hidden in a barn full of unthreshed grain where a hiding place had been made. The house and barn were located at the edge of the village some distance from other buildings. At the same time, Mama and Pola were hidden in the parish house in Nowe Brzesko. However, they had to leave the parish house because a vicar by the name of Molicki noticed them while visiting there and warned the parish priest about danger to the parish. And thus, my mother and sister arrived one night at our hiding place in Stręgoborzyce. With the gradual depletion of the bundles of grain in the barn, we transferred, with the knowledge of our host, to a garret over a shed. The peasant kept demanding ever higher payments. My mother, wrapped in a huge scarf,disguised as a peasant woman, went out to retrieve our hidden money and merchandise to pay the peasant. After a certain time, the peasant gave us nothing more to eat or drink. When my father made a request for some food, he was beaten up. We overheard a conversation of the peasant with his nephew Franek (they were planning to kill us and hide the bodies).
Mama, during one of her excursions for merchandise, managed to convince a poor family to accept us. She promised that if we were discovered, we would say that we sneaked into their loft without their knowledge. We paid for hiding there with cotton fabric.
Under the pretext of having to fetch valuables to make further payments, my mother and sister set out from the Migases’ to the new hiding place. They proceeded to the new hiding place, that is, to the Komenda family. At night, my father and I surreptitiously descended from the garret and headed for the new place. The home of the Komendas was located at the other end of the same village. In this way, we escaped being murdered.
We hid in a loft with a pile of straw and husks. Mama and I, dressed as peasant women (my eyebrows were trimmed), would go out from time to time, alternately at dawn or dusk, headed for various acquaintances to pick up a few meters of fabric at a time that had been left earlier for storage. With this, we paid our hosts for hiding us. Frequently, we made such trips in vain as the people did not want to give anything back to us, only expressing surprise that we were still alive.
I had a dramatic experience one time in Nowe Brzesko when I went there to pick up merchandise, disguised, as usual, as a peasant woman, wrapped in a big country shawl. I realized that I was being pursued by a boy with whom I had gone to school before the war in the first grade. He called out to other fellows, and they followed me. I overheard one of them say that they ought to see whose home I was going to. This saved me because, while following me, they could not simultaneously report on me to adults.
I did not turn around, pretending that I could not hear the conversation. Of course, I did not go to anyone’s house. I led them outside the village into the field, and I started to run away. They did not catch up with me. In fury, they yelled after me, “You Jewess” and shouted after me, “paf, paf,” pretending to shoot. I saved myself, but at the same time, I was found out. I could no longer go to Brzesko.
I continued to call on other acquaintances, for example, my teacher in Wawrzeńczyce. My teacher pitied me, saying, “My God, child, how you look!” I was pale and famished, but she did not give me bread, which I begged for.
Mama told us about how she had miraculously escaped with her life. Dressed, as usual, in her disguise, she was heading for the Filipowski family who lived near the village green in Nowe Brzesko (they were teachers). My parents had left their jewelry with them for safekeeping. First, they told her that nuns were going around proclaiming that one should not return anything back to Jews nor help them because they had murdered Christ. Mama realized that they had instructed their child to go to a friend at the fire department, who was collaborating with the police, and report that she was there. It was evening. Mama promptly returned. She did not retrieve any means of support.
Time passed. Successive winters caused my legs to become frostbitten. We had no bed linen, slept year-round in our clothes, were bitten by lice, and underfed.
The farmers with whom we were staying were decent but poor people. Mama was forever going out to get us some food. A few times, she got help from a peasant whom she had encountered by chance who turned out to be a Jewish farmhand named Grünberg from the neighboring town of Wawrzeńczyce, where he was hiding with a child. He worked in the field for some friendly peasants, and for this, he received food.
In the middle of December 1944, Mama went out to get food for us at the peasant’s where Grünberg was staying, and she never returned. In despair, although I had difficulty walking because my legs were frostbitten, I went out at dusk to find out what had happened. I reached the place of the peasant who told me to run away immediately. He told me that Mama had been taken away by partisans who had earlier captured Grünberg, together with his ten-year-old son. So-called Jędrusie were active in that area, that is how they were called.
Jędrusie – the name, derived from the Polish first name Jędrzej/Andrzej, denoted all Polish wartime partisan groups that were not leftist. See also note 3 in sister Pola’s story.
I made my way back surreptitiously among stalks of tobacco. I heard shots, and I had the impression that they were in my direction. I returned to my hiding place by night. My father consoled us as best he could. The loss of my mother caused me to totally lose interest in living. Other than crying and grieving, I was unable do anything. All of this happened one month before liberation, which took place in January 1945.
After the war, it turned out that a brother of the murdered Grünberg survived in a camp. In some way, he found out where his brother and his son were buried, and he exhumed them. I don’t know the place where my mother was buried by these pseudo-partisans, brave vis-å-vis defenseless women and children. Many Jews who were hiding out were murdered.
A few days after the flight of the Germans and the entrance of the Soviet Army, we clandestinely proceeded to Nowe Brzesko, where a few other surviving Jews also returned. The only intact family who returned were the Piór family, saved without compensation by certain peasants, Jehovah’s Witnesses. Unfortunately, even after the Germans were chased out, murders of Jews by underground bands took place. Many Jews were shot in Słomniki. In Nowe Brzesko, also, an attack took place on the house where the surviving Piórs lived. Bandits broke into the hallway from which doors led left and right. They broke through the door on the left and shot several Poles. It was a mistake, as they later tried to justify themselves in court, because the doors to the Piór family led to the right. We were exhausted, sick, and still in danger. My father traveled to Kraków where a provincial Jewish Committee had already been formed. There, he arranged for us to be admitted to a children’s home which was initially located at 38 Długa Street. We gave our depositions before the Historical Commission––how we survived the war.
My father, it turned out after a medical examination, was sick with tuberculosis. Taking advantage of assistance provided by the Jewish Committee, he underwent treatment. I, who had difficulty walking, and my sister were directed to a preventorium opened in Zakopane for children who were not quite well. The children’s home was located in the villa Leśny Gród (Forest Castle) on Chramcówek Street in Zakopane. The building was protected by armed Jewish guards around the clock. In Rabka, as well, another children’s home was established which had the character of a sanitarium for children threatened by tuberculosis.
After a certain time, the children from Rabka arrived at our place in Zakopane. The home in Rabka was shut down after an armed attack on it. The children told us about the course of the assault and the battle for the building which was defended by the Jewish guards. The attack occurred at night. The band did not succeed in invading the children’s home. The children’s home in Zakopane was supported by “Joint.” We had very good food and care. There, also, they helped us to resume our elementary school education, and external examinations were arranged. In this manner, I earned a certificate for the completion of the fifth grade.
Joint – American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Because of the continuing threat, the children’s home in Zakopane was shut down at the end of 1945. The majority of the children were transported abroad, to France or to what was then Palestine. My sister and I returned to the children’s home in Kraków, which was located at 1 Augustiańska-boczna Street. There, we continued to have good living conditions. Many children who returned after the war from the Soviet Union also came to this children’s home.
I attended the Jewish School, located at 6 Estera Street, which had the status of a public school. Each school year, we covered the program of two years in order to make up for time lost during the war. I attended a course in radio technology organized by ORT and earned a journeyman’s license. In 1947, I began work with the Radio Technical Cooperative, studying at the same time in a general education lyceum for people who were working. After passing matriculation, I interrupted my work. I was accepted for studies at the Electrical Department of the Academy of Mining and Metallurgy in Kraków. I finished my studies in 1954, earning a diploma in electrical engineering. During my studies, I lived in a Jewish student house.
ORT – Organization for Development of Productivity of the Association to Promote Vocational Work – was active in the interwar period, during the war (e.g., in the Warsaw Ghetto), and after the war, as one of the agencies of the Jewish Committee, primarily financing schools and vocational courses. (Author’s note)
After my studies, I worked in various positions, altogether for thirty-three years. In 1969, I was removed from work for a period of time during the anti-Zionist campaign. At present, I am retired.
“anti-Zionist campaign” – 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/anti-Semitism.
Kraków, November 24, 1992