Helena Choynowska (Alter), born in 1935
An account of my stay in the Lwów Ghetto
To begin with a brief explanation relative to this account, it is being written by an adult but about things seen through the eyes of a six- or seven-year-old child. Therefore, for example, specific concrete dates are missing from it, and the whole consists of individual pictures rather than of a chronological description of events.
Shortly after the Germans marched into Lwów, we were dislodged from our apartment at 63 Łyczakowska Street. The apartment was taken over by a Ukrainian and his family, along with the furniture. At the plea of my mother, Gustawa Alter, that he permit us to take my small bed, he said, “No, you people have already slept enough on soft beds.”
We moved to the quarter designated for Jews by the Germans. I remember many “actions” from this time. One time, they were looking, for example, for furs; on another occasion, they were taking only children (Mama then covered me up with bedding piled on a bed), and most frequently, they loaded onto vehicles all the Jews found in the building, entire families at a time.
At that time, my father and grandfather were still going to work outside the Jewish quarter. The building in which we lived had a very long corridor in the basement that had small windows opening onto the courtyard on one side and doors to individual basement rooms on the other. Every day at dawn, women with children who were bigger (so that they would not cry) would come down there. The men, before going to work, would wall off the rear end of the corridor, together with the last little room where we sat, until they returned from work and “undid” the wall. Through a tiny window, we saw how trucks drove into the courtyard and our neighbors were loaded onto them and taken away.
We lasted there until the time they instituted a closed ghetto. I remember when we were moving in the direction of Zamarstynów, over a bridge (or viaduct) at the entry to which stood guards who checked over our belongings. I think that our greatest treasure then was a small pile of coal, half of which we were told to drop off. We were happy that we managed to take the other half with us.
In the ghetto, we settled not in an individual apartment but in a barracks for dozens of people. At that time, we were still several people – my parents, my grandparents, and my mother’s brother. The men continued to have passes and go to work. One day, during the winter, my father and my uncle did not return home. After some time, a man showed up who had fled the transport and brought a very brief letter from my father, Rachmiel Alter. I remember every word of his short note. He was bidding us farewell. He knew that he was being taken to Bełżec.
At that time, living conditions were already horrible––the cold, great hunger. I remember that bread was set aside only for men because they worked. (My mother would put the bread high up on top of a wardrobe so that I would not be able to reach it at night, but I dreamt of it constantly). In the barracks, there were lice and typhus. My grandfather would leave to go “outside” to work; he sanded floors in newly built houses. At times, we would manage to go out together with him and pass the whole day in warmth on the construction site and then return to the ghetto in the evening when it was already a little safer.
At night, my grandfather, along with a few other men from the barrack, dug a hole in the ground under the floor. They covered it up by day with boards. It was small, but when we could no longer go out with grandfather to his construction site, it was precisely there that we sat through several actions. After one of the many such actions, when silence set in over our heads, we came out. But in our barracks and in the others near it, there was by then no one left whom we knew. After a few hours, a few persons who had managed to hide somewhere appeared.
It was then that my mother made the first try at escaping from the ghetto. She obtained false papers, poorly prepared. She had no money for better ones. She told me later that when these papers were taken under a light, it was easy to see clearly the “alterations.” I was the courier to the Aryan side. I had “good looks.” A cousin of my parents showed up with a little girl and asked that mother and I try to save her. He gave us financial assistance, as best he was able, and so equipped, the three of us managed to get out of the ghetto.
My mother decided to immediately leave Lwów where she had lived all her life and could easily be recognized. Unfortunately, we only got to the railroad station. There, a man in civilian clothes, but speaking German, barred our way and took us to the station guard post.
He was there alone. He became very interested in the contents of our suitcases. He kept questioning me and my little cousin where mother told us to hide the rings (which, alas, were already gone), but he became most interested in the photo of my father that he found in Mother’s purse. He recognized him, just like my mother knew with whom she was talking, but she did not show that she knew. Namely, this was a man who used to come to our house before I was born. His brother had rented a room from my parents while he was a student. His name was Kołcz. (I know this from my mother from a later, post-war period, when she tried to find him. She succeeded, but one of her friends advised her to drop the matter because she was a woman by herself, whereas both Kołcz brothers were officials of the Security Office. They lived then in Zakopane.)
Returning to that evening, it was already dark when we left the guard post, and he said that he would now take us to the Gestapo. All along the route, I kept begging him to let us go, until finally he stopped and said, “Go back to the ghetto.” He took the suitcases and the money but left my mother the papers in her purse and some change for the night streetcar and walked off.
We found ourselves again in the ghetto. It must have been just a few days later that Mother and I made another attempt. Getting out of the ghetto was by itself fairly easy by then. One did not even have to pass by guard posts. The neighboring population was simply taking apart the wooden fences surrounding the ghetto for fuel. This time, all our belongings fit into one briefcase (some changes of underwear).
We went to the man who had been the caretaker of our house before the war. His name was Mielnik. He gave us shelter for two or three nights in the cellar and found an old woman in the same building who agreed to take me in. Mother wanted to get to Warsaw and then bring me there, but she stayed in the cellar a few more nights.
When the old woman at whose place I was (hungry and half-frozen because she was giving me almost no food at all) assured herself that mother was gone, she threw me out of the house one evening. I knew only one address, that of my older sister’s friend Nuśka (Eugenia) Węgrzyn, and that is where I went. She and her parents took care of me, fed me, and deloused me. I stayed with them until the time when they ascertained where my mother was, and it was this friend of my sister who took me to her.
However, we were not together until the end of the war. Mother worked in Warsaw as a maid, and I was at a peasant’s, in the small country village of Wiśniewo beyond Mińsk Mazowiecki, taking cows to pasture. But that is already another non ghetto story.
Warsaw, October 1992