Hanka Grynberg, born in 1933
In the Bialystok ghetto
I was born in Warsaw as Chana Grynberg. My father, Hersz Lejb Grynberg, came from Płock. Born in 1903, he was the oldest son of Szlama Jakub and Dyna, née Winberg, Grynberg. There were a lot of children in our family. Father had six sisters and one brother. Only my father and two sisters, Henia Kępińska and Gucia Harke, survived the war. Gucia, to this day, lives in Łuniniec in the Wołyń region (at present, Belarus). Henia and my father are no longer alive.
In the thirties, after the death of my grandfather, my father’s family moved to Warsaw. They lived in poverty, and very early, my father left home, becoming independent. Because of his activities in the Communist movement, he was thrown out of school. Before the war, he finished only six classes of high school and had no profession. Later, he maintained that poverty pushed him onto the path of Communism. He thought that Communism would save the world and make everybody happy. At an older age, he always told me, “Remember, don’t make anyone happy by force as I wished to do.”
My mother, Chawa Szlang, was born in 1905 in Grodzisk Mazowiecki. She was a midwife by profession. Before the war, she finished the private Dr. Rejs School for Midwives in Warsaw. As I remember, she always worked in her profession.
At the beginning of the twenties, her family moved to Warsaw and lived on Nalewki Street. They did not do too badly. Grandfather Szlang had his own dye-works in an annex at 66 Nowolipki Street. He died in 1933. Grandma Brana, née Dębinek, took care of the house. I remember her very well because I spent a lot of time with her since we lived together.
Mama, who was the eldest, also had four sisters and a brother. My aunt, Aleksandra Bonk, and my uncle, Jerzy Szlang, the youngest and Mama’s only brother, survived in the USSR, the only ones out of her entire family. I was the first child born in either family. One can imagine how loved and pampered I was. They called me Haneczka. In our family, there was an inclination towards assimilation. Father was called Leon, and Mama, Ewa.
The outbreak of the war in 1939 marked our separation from the entire large family. My parents decided to flee to the east into the territories occupied by Russia. We settled in Białystok. Because of this, we lived reasonably peacefully until June 1941.
The Germans created a ghetto in Białystok almost immediately. It was already established toward the end of July 1941. We lived on Warszawska Street, which was not within the ghetto, and thus, we had to move. While our things were being moved to the Jewish quarter, the Germans arrested my mother. The wagon driver, a Pole who had transported our belongings to the address indicated, told us that some woman had pointed Mama out to the Germans, saying, “This one is a Jew and a Communist.” That was enough. I never saw Mama again. To this day, we don’t know how she perished. Our guess is that she was shot. Mama never belonged to the Communist Party; she was only a member of the so-called MOPR (International Organization to Assist Revolutionaries). The loss of my mother was a most difficult experience. I always missed her and envied my friends who had mothers, and perhaps only when I myself became a mother, did I stop grieving.
In the Białystok Ghetto, we lived at 22 Nowy Świat Street together with Mama’s sister, Regina—Renia. Her husband had been drafted into the Soviet Army. She was in the eighth month of pregnancy and, in August 1941, gave birth to her daughter, Danusia, in the ghetto hospital.
Our apartment consisted of three rooms and a small maid’s room. From four to nine persons were crammed into each room. In our room were Aunt Renia with Danusia, my dear Papa, and I. The adjacent, dark maid’s room was occupied by my other aunt, Henia, her husband, Zygmunt, and their small son, Marek, four years younger than myself. Both aunts did everything possible to take the place of my mother.
With us also, in the very same room, lived Edzia Nejman with her son, Janek. She had been a teacher who was now working as a maid for Dr. Kierszman, an excellent Białystok oculist. Because of this, she always had food, but she used to lock it up in a closet away from the others. In addition, in one of the remaining rooms lived the Trachimowski family, the parents and their three grown sons and two daughters-in-law, one of whom had a small child. The fourth room was occupied by a family whose name I do not recall. They had three children the same age as Marek and me. Because of that, we always had someone to play with.
The situation was not, however, without squabbles and quarrels, because one woman poked her nose into the pots of another, and they did not have equal means. The children also were looking at the plates of others. After a while, a little kitchen stove was placed in each room with a pipe to the chimney or out of a window. People cooked on it, and, at the same time, it heated their lodgings.
My father worked in a warehouse outside the ghetto. Every day, he left in the morning and returned late. He would bring home provisions from the warehouse. The Germans permitted the taking of burnt caramel sugar. He would also regularly get groats of millet, potatoes, and other food items. In the ghetto, shops existed in private apartments. Very small quantities were purchased. I remember how Renia used to send me to buy two decagrams of butter or sugar. Early on, in the fall of 1941, it was difficult in the ghetto, but it was still possible to live. People had faith that this would soon come to an end. But in 1942, after the “action” in Warsaw, the liquidation of Jews began to be discussed quite openly.
Two decagrams – about one and a half tablespoons.
“action” in Warsaw – July 1942 marked the beginning of the deportation of Jews in the ghetto to Treblinka.
I was then attending school or rather a certain type of private group instruction. This was by no means regular schooling. I hardly remember us ever writing or c ounting. Our teacher was Mrs. Renia. Unfortunately, I have forgotten her full name. Most frequently, she read books to us, e.g., “Heart”, by De Amicis, and “Amidst our Meadows and Forests”. She also taught us to memorize poems, actually quite serious ones for our age, e.g., “The Father of The Plague-Stricken”, by Słowacki, “White Robe” by an author I do not know, or “The Meandering Sun”, by Adam Asnyk. She also organized various games. From time to time, we put on performances or we would go to the Praga Garden to look at trees and plants. Today, I think with admiration about this woman who tried to bolster the spirits of small children. Listening to “The Father of The Plague-Stricken” we understood that in spite of great pain after the loss of our dearest ones, we must live on.
“Heart” and “Amidst our Meadows and Forests” – Serce and Wsród naszych łąk i borów are the Polish titles.
“The Father of The Plague-Stricken” – in Polish, the titles are “Ojciec zadżumionych”, “White Robe” are “Biała szata”, “The Meandering Sun” are “Wędrowało sobie słonko”.“The Father of The Plague-Stricken” is a story about a father with many children whom he loses during a plague.
Mrs. Renia also taught us to lie. Yes! She instructed us to look her straight in the eye, and without blinking or averting the eyes, to repeat: “I am not a Jew.” Already then, she knew, and told us frequently, that most of us would perish but that some must survive, and those who survived must tell the world what the Germans did to us. Children carried on conversations among themselves about who had an Aryan face and who did not, and who might survive and who might not.
“The most important thing is courage,” Mrs. Renia would say; “it is necessary to lie, never to admit to being Jewish, because that means death.” I believe that I survived the war thanks to this wise woman who taught us how to behave in those horrible times.
At the beginning of 1943, my father located Polish people who agreed to take me out to the country as a Catholic orphan from Warsaw.
On some dark and cold February night, Papa took me out of the ghetto through a fence at Częstochowska or Polna Street, I no longer remember. (Today I know from my readings, that it was February 5, 1943) I had no feeling of fear; I treated it as an adventure. We went in the direction of the parish church. There, Papa left me. I had memorized the address, and I had it also sewn in my dress. Father thought that it was dangerous for us to walk together. He instructed me to wait a little and then to go to a designated address. I waited a moment. I became cold, and therefore, I set forth. I stopped in front of a house where there was a light, and… I found my way straight to the Schupo.
February 5, 1943 – the first liquidation of the Białystok Ghetto took place from the fifth to the twelfth of February, 1943. See B. Mark, Ruch oporu – w getcie białostockim. Samoobrona, zagłada, powstanie, [Resistance Movement – in the Białystok Ghetto. Self-defense, Annihilation, Insurrection], (Warsaw 1952), 150. (Author’s footnote)
Schupo – German police.
There, they immediately started questioning me. A Polish interpreter appeared who asked me my first name, my last name, and other things that I no longer remember. I knew what I was supposed to say, and at the beginning, everything went well. Then he told me to cross myself. This was my first encounter with that. I did not know what it was all about. He ordered me to recite “Our Father,” and I again drew a blank. It was clear to them who I was. Just then, a detail was going to the ghetto for the first removal action. Thus, they took me with them. At the ghetto guardpost, a policeman whom I knew saw me, and he took me to his own family, which was then still being protected.
The action lasted from eight in the morning until four or five in the afternoon. Afterward, I learned that my Aunt Renia and Danusia were in a knitting factory on Białostoczańska Street. Those who were employed still had the benefit of some protection. I went there. It took me considerable time to find her. I peeked into every stall, divided by sheets. People looked at me as if I were an intruder. Finally, behind one of the sheets, I found her.
When she saw me, her eyes became as big as saucers. “Why did you come here?!” she started to shout hysterically. “After all, you were already outside the ghetto!” Only after I gave her my full account, she hugged me and inquired, “What will you have to eat?” I don’t remember whether I was hungry at all after that whole day. I only dreamed about undressing. Leaving the ghetto, I had put on several pairs of panties, several shirts, several pairs of socks, stockings, two dresses, and a coat, and also a pilot cap pulled over my head. After the whole day, I was tired, and the greatest relief was taking it all off and washing myself. The bowl of water and the saucerlike eyes of Renia are engraved in my memory the most.
We stayed in the factory an entire week. After that, the action ended, and we were all allowed to go home. We proceeded to our room on Nowy Świat. In the evening, Papa arrived. He looked at me and said, “You are alive? I thought I would never see you again. Immediately after I left you by the church, I returned, out of fear that you would not find your way, but you were no longer there.” Well, then we exchanged our accounts of everything that happened, and Papa said, “Tomorrow, we will go out again, but this time, we will go together. At worst, we will both perish.”
That very night, we went through the fence again, and Papa escorted me to Jadwiga and Michał Skalski on Rzemieślnicza Street in the Ogrodniczki quarter. The Skalskis had with them their daughter, Halina, and also Jadwiga’s sister, Wanda. A married couple, the Wajsfeld, were already hiding then in their house.
The plan was as follows. In order that I may pass for a Polish girl, I would have to learn all the prayers and how to conduct myself in church. Then, they would transport me to the country to a family with whom Jadwiga and Wanda were doing business. The farmer’s wife wanted to take in a poor orphan from Warsaw. She had two sons but desired to also have a little daughter. Initially, they wanted to give me the birth certificate of Halina Skalska, but later, it was concluded that this would be dangerous, because in the event that something happened, it would have been easy to discover the truth. However, I was already used to the name Halina, and this has been my name to this day.
After a short period of preparation, when I knew by heart everything that was necessary to know, we traveled to the country. The country village, or rather small town, was called Suraż. Before the war, quite a few Jews had lived there. To this day, there is a Jewish cemetery, fenced in by an undamaged wall, but the tombstones are no longer there…
The farm of the Leszczyński family, where I was supposed to stay, was located in a settlement about one and a half kilometers away from the village. We traveled from Białystok past several railroad stations, and then, we walked on foot through the forest.
The Leszczyński family received me very well. Particularly, much heart was shown to me by Zofia Leszczyńska, Aunt Zosia. Her third husband, Klemens, was totally under his wife’s thumb. Mrs. Leszczyńska had two sons. Lonia Gryczuk, from her first marriage, was then already married to Marysia, and they had a two-year-old little son, Loniuś. Her younger son, fifteen-year-old Ziutek Leszczyński, gave me the most trouble. I found a way to deal even with him.
Although I was five years younger than he, I read fluently and could tell stories. In the Leszczyński household, there were no books other than prayer books. In the ghetto, I had already read a lot. I knew the fables of the Brothers Grimm, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, the already- mentioned Heart of De Amicis, among others. Ziutek did not read well but gladly listened. When he annoyed me too much, I blackmailed him that I would not tell him any stories. Most often, on winter Sundays, when the grownups went to church, and we stayed home, I would recount to him Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Slowly, I gained an advantage over him, but he was an unpleasant and shrewd young fellow. He suspected all along that I was Jewish, although the rest of the family was thoroughly convinced that I was a Catholic orphan from Warsaw.
Before the war, Ziutek had attended elementary school with Jewish boys. He knew a few words in Yiddish, and he constantly tried to speak it to me. I watched myself very carefully and pretended I had no idea what it was all about. In principle, I did not know Yiddish, but after a year-and-a-half stay in the ghetto, I was somewhat familiar with its sounds, and I understood quite a bit.
The living conditions in the country were quite different from those in the city, and I found myself, for the first time, in a non-Jewish environment with a totally different set of customs. We used to go “behind the barn,” and we washed our hands and face little, and even that, not all the time. Water from the well was cold, but then I arrived in Suraż sometime between February and March 1943 during the second week of Lent.
Children worked on a par with adults. During the winter and in early spring, there was not too much of such work, but Aunt Zosia was of the opinion that there was no point in sitting around with folded hands. They started teaching me to knit. Socks were needed. I worked on my first pair of socks for three months. In wintertime, a loom stood in the kitchen which was used to weave linen and woolen textile materials. I thought that I would like this work a lot, but I was not allowed to do it. Since I was pretty adept at knitting, Aunt Zosia declared that, in the future, I should go to study at a dressmaker’s. This idea did not appeal to me, so much so that to this day I do not like to sew.
I did everything I was told to do just as I was taught at home and had been instructed in school. When we were saying our farewells, Papa promised me that he would come to get me for sure. I strongly believed it. Life in the country rolled along its own course. War barely reached here, as if it were but a distant echo.
Although the children in my family did not experience hunger in the ghetto to the same degree as the grownups, still, I virtually did not see any milk or normal food there. In the country, there was no shortage of dairy products—and not just of dairy products. In comparison to ghetto life, it was wonderful. However, sitting together around the table, they all ate from one bowl. Aunt Zosia sat me down separately. I ate so slowly that I could not have managed to eat enough. Aunt Zosia, taking pity on an orphan, passed me the best morsels.
Summer came, and with it, the taking of cows to pasture. At first, Ziutek taught me this skill. Later, I minded the cows myself or with other children. One day, we had the cows grazing near a Jewish cemetery, and he asked me, “Do you know that this is a Jewish cemetery?” “So, what of it?” I said, looking him straight in the eye without even a blink. “Were you at the funeral of your mom?” Ziutek asked me. “Yes,” I said. “And how did they bury her?” “What do you mean, how? Wrapped in a sheet,” I answered. By happenstance, I had at- tended a Jewish funeral in the ghetto. “So, you are a Jew,” declared Ziutek with satisfaction. “What are you saying. Why?” I responded. “Catholics get buried differently.” Then, Ziutek explained to me how a Catholic funeral looks, how women and how men are dressed for the casket.
I realized with horror that everything had been given away. My first feeling was how terribly I had let down my family and Mrs. Renia, my teacher. I tried so hard, and in the end, after three months, it had come to light…
In the evening, when we returned home with the cows, Ziutek, turning to the whole family, said, “Halina is Jewish, and we shall all perish because of her.” “What are you talking about?” Aunt Zosia asked her son. He then told them about our conversation. The family was terrified. Death threatened for hiding Jews. “As soon as Mrs. Skalska comes, we will give her back,” decided Aunt Zosia. “What will I say at home to Aunt Renia and Papa?” I thought with sadness.
But Mrs. Skalska did not come. A few days passed, and the Leszczyński family became more and more impatient because they did not even know her address. In the end, Aunt Zosia could not hold out any longer, and she went to see the priest. She returned very contented. “The priest said,” she announced, “that the child has to be made into a real Catholic. ‘Baptize her and send her immediately with other children to First Communion.’” Then, nobody will suspect anything, and Aunt Zosia will find great merit with the Lord for converting an unbelieving soul.
I accepted their decision with great joy. Anything, just not to return to the ghetto, I thought. I went with Auntie to the priest who quickly realized that I read well. He gave me catechism, told me what I had to study by myself, and said that I did not need to come to church every day for instruction. From our settlement to the church was approximately four kilometers. Before Communion itself, I was asked questions from the entire catechism so that there would be no problems. I knew that I had to master everything, and it was not all that difficult. I was baptized, and I went to Communion with the other children.
In Suraż, they got used to me, and at the Leszczyńskis’, they treated me like a daughter, although I told them that I had a father who for sure would come for me. One day in summertime, it was the second half of August, when I returned with the cows from pasture, Ziutek came up to me and said, “Today, the entire ghetto was burned down, and your papa will never return for you. Now, you belong to us.”
I responded nothing to it, but I thought to myself, “Never.” I believed that Papa would come for me. He always kept his word.
Life in the country was measured by the times of the seasons. There was always talk that the front line was already close and that the Germans would be pushed out by the “Ruskis.” Between June and July 1944, the offensive began. Suraż lay on the River Narew and was of strategic significance. It was clear that it was necessary to flee. In the muddy forest nearby, dugouts were built, and for two weeks, we weathered the artillery barrage in them. As a result of the offensive, Suraż was partially burned down. Among the houses that went up in flames in the settlement was the Leszczyński home. We moved in with neighbors in the same village.
I remember that I was home alone, watching the house. The Leszczyńskis had gone out somewhere when someone knocked and entered immediately. At first, I did not recognize my own papa. The image that I had in my mind was different, although a year and a half had passed. My joy knew no bounds. We started to question each other about everything. It turned out that Father had jumped out of a train transporting Jews to Treblinka and at night had made his way to Białystok to the Skalskis.
Aunt Renia and Danusia had perished in Treblinka. Aunt Henia made a heroic decision. In spite of her Semitic features, she resolved to save her son at any price. She succeeded in obtaining Aryan papers and moved to the Aryan side. They succeeded in surviving, principally, because the little boy was not circumcised. The denunciations of the neighbors that they were Jews had no result. After all, each interrogation by the Gestapo was preceded by a physical examination.
Henia told me after the war that during the last interrogation, she was convinced that they would not emerge whole. She and six-year-old Marek were questioned in different rooms. When she heard the boy crying, she felt that she could not take it any longer, and she bet everything on one card. When the Gestapo man started looking her over, he said, “I can see that you have a Jewish nose. Why do you deny it?” She then answered him firmly and boldly, “And what kind of nose do you have? Look at yourself in the mirror!” Supposedly, the German paled, and the interrogation ended with both of them being let out. When they returned to their apartment, it turned out that their possessions had been stolen. Fortunately, they survived the war.
During my conversation with Father, the Leszczyńskis arrived. Papa thanked them warmly for everything and asked that they keep me a little longer. In the city, the living conditions were impossible.
Our postwar fortunes followed the same path as those of other Jews who survived Hitler’s occupation in the Polish territories. We did not want to be Jews. The fear of being Jewish became a complex with us. For over fourteen years, I did not admit to being Jewish. But can one run away from oneself?
In 1978, thanks to my uncle from Frankfurt, I traveled illegally from Germany to Israel. I liked it there very much. My daughters were already almost adults. I was divorced from my husband. I decided to leave for Israel permanently. In November 1979, I submitted an application to leave. I did not receive permission but was thrown out of my job. After twenty years of exemplary work in education, I lost everything. The reason for the denial, according to the then Polish authorities, was the departure of my younger daughter Magda in 1978 for France (she was then 21), from which she did not return. At present, Magda lives with her husband in Melbourne, where they run a business dedicated to artistic craft work, stained glass and sculpture.
My older daughter, Ewa, remained in Poland. She is a scientist in the field of biochemistry and plant diseases. I always dreamed of returning to Warsaw, where I had lived before the war with my parents. I realized my decision in 1986. I took a position with the Jewish Historical Institute.