Irena (Agata) Bołdok (1), born in 1932
Back to Being Myself!
[We are publishing two memoirs by Irena Bołdok. The second one can be read by selecting “Irena Bołdok (2)” in the “memory” tab]
I constantly feel as if I am about to see my father, sister, family All the
time I am waiting for someone familiar to suddenly appear. My father’s name was Henryk Likierman. He married Anna, née Hampel. I am Irena, née Likierman. I had a sister, Helena, who perished. She was eight years older than I. Before the war we lived on Marszałkowska Street, house number 49, apartment 34—this I still remember.
I remember the apartment, the color of the wallpapers, and our normal family. I remember that Mama used to take me to the Botanical Garden, which she should not have done, because I was allergic to roses. Besides, children were not allowed there. I spent my childhood in the Ujazdowski Garden. I used to go to the playground on Bagatela Street to the little Jordan Garden for several hours a day. Mama used to take me there. I remember taking strolls with my mother and trips to the seaside. Mama fed us vegetables, because she thought they were healthy. I remember that my sister hated spinach, but I liked it very much. I remember that we walked around in our stocking feet until the first snow. I remember how my mother used to scrub me and say, “You have to be so clean that your knees shine!” She took good care of me. I think my sister was a bit jealous of me—she had been an only child for a long time.
Father was a bookkeeper. He worked for the firm Plutos. Of course, mother did not work. We had a maid before the war. I assume that my parents were rather well off. Mama was very talented artistically; she devoted time to the arts. She sketched, sang, and danced. She may have even danced professionally before we were born. She told me to step on my toes, not my heels, and taught us movement to music at home.
My sister told me wonderful fairy tales; I could be talked into doing anything she wanted in exchange for her stories. We devised our own language, which we used with each other. It wasn’t for everyday use. She drew very well, took drawing lessons even in the Warsaw Ghetto.
The Germans, while looking for radios that were supposed to have been turned in, came to our home, in 1939 or 1940, and killed my dog in front of my eyes. After that I got meningitis. When we moved to the ghetto, I wasn’t able to speak or walk; my parents wheeled me in a cart. I don’t remember this very well, but I do remember it. In the ghetto we lived at number 30 or 60 Sienna Street—I get the numbers mixed up. It was somewhere near where the Palace of Culture is today. The four of us lived in a little room, somewhere very high up, on the sixth or seventh floor. How we supported ourselves—I don’t know. Our neighbor from Marszałkowska helped us for a while. Her name was Wiernicka. Earlier, at that woman’s suggestion, my mother had me and my sister baptized at the Church of the Holy Cross.
Later. . . I remember only that my mother left the ghetto with me; we went through some hole in the wall and went to Międzyrzec Podlaski, where my father’s sister lived, married to a Doctor Kozes. They had a house there. I remember the trip to Międzyrzec. Mother, who spoke good German, entered with me into a compartment for Germans, which was dictated by necessity (or was it impudence?), because the train was terribly crowded. The officers in this German car were very gallant and let my mother ride with me. However, a conductor came and threw us out of there, stuffing us into some other car.
We thus lived for a time with our family in Międzyrzec, but then my mother decided to go back for my father and sister, who had stayed in the Warsaw Ghetto. With a Polish last name, as Anna Szonert (on Aryan papers), she went back to Warsaw. She took a certain amount of money, or gold, to bribe the blue-uniformed [Polish] police. Unfortunately, during a street roundup, she was taken for forced labor in Germany. She worked in a marmalade factory there. Later, for participating in sabotage, she was sent to the camp at Ravensbrück.
Aryan papers were documents attesting that the person named in them was Aryan, not Jewish. Jews who were able to obtain falsified Aryan papers were able to live on the Aryan side, though always in danger of being “unmasked” and denounced.
Ravensbrück – a women’s concentration camp, containing numerous satellite camps, was located fifty-six miles north of Berlin.
I don’t remember the order of events clearly . . . but I think it must have been that Mother was still alive, Father’s family, too, and I was staying with peasants in a village. I was placed there (for money) for “safekeeping”. But when I got jaundice and scabies, they drove me close to Międzyrzec and dropped me from the cart like a sack of potatoes, saying that I should go back to where I had been before. So I went back to my aunt and uncle and stayed there for some time. But at that time transports to Treblinka were already being organized. A German lived in one of the rooms of that house (a multifamily house on the market square of Międzyrzec). But things get a little mixed up for me here . . .
Treblinka was a death camp fifty miles northeast of Warsaw where most of the Jews of Warsaw were deported. More than 800,000 Jews were killed there.
There was also a time when Mother was still living in Międzyrzec and we were all herded together in the market square for deportation. However, I stayed at home and hid (aware that they were going to their deaths) in that German officer’s room, behind his overcoat. Eventually, someone came and dragged me out from behind that coat. Here I must return to 1940 or maybe 1941. Why weren’t we shipped off when everyone else was taken? It seems that my mother showed our certificates from the church, and we managed to get out from there. And then I think Mother went to Warsaw. During the next roundup, my aunt, I, and our whole family from Międzyrzec were packed into a railroad wagon for deportation, most likely to Treblinka.
Mother wasn’t with us then. And then, my uncle—the doctor—injected himself, his wife, and their child with morphine. He wanted to give me an injection, too, but there was terrible crowding and confusion; someone pushed me away, and I found myself near the door. I did not quite realize that they were no longer alive, even though I knew My uncle had said that it was a deadly injection, that we were going to our deaths anyway, so to protect everyone … Maybe I ran away from that shot myself? I don’t remember.
In any case, I found myself near the door. A railroad worker who was there asked, “What’s your name, little girl?” I answered, “Irena.” He said I had blue eyes, like his daughter… He pulled me out of there, saying, “Come quickly, don’t say anything.” He hid me in the station, in the toilet. When the transport left, he came for me. Where did he take me? If I could only remember … I get the sequence of events mixed up. So when the railroad worker told me to go, I think I went to the house of my mother’s friend, a gentile. Her name was Cydzikowa. My mother must have been there with me at some point in time. We had hidden in the barn. A peasant came in there with a pitchfork and looked for us. He poked the pitchfork into the hay and said, “I’ll scare those Jews out of here right away.” Apparently he had seen us when we sneaked in. He poked the pitchfork in time after time.
I remember that I was terribly afraid that I would scream. I don’t know whether he threw us out of that barn or whether he didn’t find us.
I came from the train station to Mrs. Cydzikowa’s. I had jaundice. I remember that I looked completely different from the other kids. My mother’s friend let me stay for a while, but then she said, “You know that I have two sons. I can’t take such a risk.” She turned me over to the nuns.
These were the Sisters of Providence—located at 69 Lubelska Street, a place donated by Count Potocki. There was a barracks for orphans there. I was the oldest, but there were thirty other little ones. This might have been the end of 1942 or 1943. The nuns knew very well that I was Jewish. I was emaciated, with little braids, yellow like a lemon because of the jaundice.
I don’t know how long I stayed with those nuns. One time, Germans came and told the nuns that if they had any Jewish children, they would have to give them up. They ought to go back to wherever they came from. The nuns decided to send me back to the woman who had brought me there. You should have seen the expression on Mrs. Cydzikowa’s face when she saw me. She said that she was very sorry, but that unfortunately, she could not take me in and that I should return to the nuns. I didn’t really know what to do; I went back and forth maybe twice. During those trips, somewhere midway, I was caught by nightfall. It could have been late autumn, because
I was already wearing a winter coat (I remember that coat; it was dark green and had a leopard-skin collar). I spent the night on the doorstep of a church mortuary. I was very cold and got a bladder infection, so I had to go pee very often. Gendarmes came in the morning. They asked, “What are you doing here, little girl?” I answered astutely that I was waiting for my mother, even though she wasn’t there, of course. “Where’s your mother?” “She went to the store.”
They came back once—I was still sitting there. A second time
—I was still sitting. They said, “Come with us, your mother probably won’t come back.” They took me to the town hall, to the mayor. The mayor was a Volksdeutscher; I think his name was Majewski. I believe this happened after all the Jewish transports had gone. I don’t know what year it was then. The mayor got the idea to send me to a home for the elderly, so that I could wait out the worst period there. He figured out that I was Jewish. When someone asked me what my name was, I answered “Irena Likierman”. What more did he need?
At the home for the elderly, I sat under someone’s bed. I would only come out to eat and wash myself. I was already there for some time (months or weeks), when I once went outdoors. Did I come out because I couldn’t stand it under the bed any more, or was it because I was allowed to? In any case, some woman saw me and began screaming, “A Jewish girl has stayed behind here; I’ll take care of her right away!” I ran back into the home, and the nuns that were running it, afraid that this woman would come after me, took me back to the sisters where I had stayed before. I spent the following year with them.
One time, before 1944, when I was not supposed to go into town, I went to see the Kozes’ house. I stood in front of the window of their pharmacy. I was thinking about everything that had happened. I could feel a German with a dog come up behind me. I saw his reflection in the window. The dog started sniffing me. I remember my determination. I was scared to turn around. The German grabbed me by the arm and turned me around to face him. “Jude?” [Jew?] “Jawohl!” [Yes!], I answered. He pushed me and said, “Raus!” [Out!] I didn’t run. I walked (this German was supposedly the butcher of Międzyrzec).
In 1944 the Russians entered. Some time before this, when the front was approaching and there was nothing to eat, the nuns handed me over, as the oldest of the girls, as a servant to a woman teacher. I was twelve years old already. The story about the teacher is a separate matter. It is sad, colorful, and long. This teacher did not let me read books, because she thought I was too smart. So why? . . . Around that time the uprising broke out in Warsaw, and she held it against me that I, a Jewish girl, was tucked away safely, while her nephew was in Warsaw, and it was not certain if he would survive. The last day of the war for me conjures up only the sight of a peasant with an ax, and his words, “They didn’t finish you off, but I will.”
When the front passed, I went back to the nuns (those at the orphanage,
not with the elderly), and in 1945 I went to school. I had never gone to school before; when I was supposed to go to first grade, the war broke out, then the ghetto, the nuns Evidently, I learned to read and write when I was still at home, when I was six years old. Some nuns were good to me, others were not. Sister Bolesława was always very good to me, and I liked her a lot. When after the war she became mother superior in Wodzisław Śląski, she invited me for vacation and sent me to a scout camp near Kłodzko.
Professor Jerzy Soplica took care of our team. He immediately realized that I was a Jewish girl. He told me, “You are a child of the nuns, but remember, if you ever have any problems, you can count on me; I’ll help you.”
I didn’t want to be the “good girl” who has to be nicer than the others just because she’s a Jew. I didn’t get along with the nuns any more. I was difficult—it was my adolescence. Some of the nuns from Zamość (I moved there from Międzyrzec) had probably been raised in small towns and had known Jews. They would wake me at night to try and force me to speak Yiddish, but I didn’t know a word of Yiddish. But they still didn’t believe me and wanted me to “confess”. I told them all kinds of stories—that I had a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother or vice versa. I used various ploys. That remains with you the rest of your life…
After completing the first or second year of lyceum, I got on a train, and, supposedly traveling to “my nun”, I went to see the professor. What was I counting on? I simply knew that I could not stand being with the nuns any more. In addition, there were problems with a priest; he was very amorous and pressed me against the wall. After all, at that time I was a believer, zealous as a neophyte who relies only on her faith.
Lyceum/liceum corresponded at that time to the last two years of U.S. high school.
When I appeared at the crack of dawn at Professor Soplica’s, he looked at me as if he had seen a ghost. He gave me something to eat and drink and told me we would go to Długopol Zdrój, where I would work in the library, and after vacation he would place me in a boarding school where I could continue my education. We went to Długopol. One time I heard the professor speaking to an acquaintance who had come to visit him. She asked about me, “Who is this young girl?” He answered, “She is my cousin.” To that she said, “Since when do you have Jews in your family?”
This made me uncomfortable, and I began thinking that after all, I really was a Jew and should find another place for myself. But at that time I didn’t know any other Jews besides myself.
Some woman came to the library in Długopol and told me she was working at the Israeli Embassy. “Are you Jewish?” she asked. “Jewish,” I answered. “What are you doing here? You’re young, you should go to Israel. Go quickly to Warsaw.”
She gave me two addresses—one, of the Israeli Embassy, and the other, of the Jewish Committee. She told me to write to the Jewish Committee for money for the ticket to Warsaw. She advised me that once I was in Warsaw, I should not go to the committee but to the embassy. I wrote, telling them where I was. I got an immediate response and money for the ticket. They wrote me to report to the committee. To tell the truth, I did not know the difference between these two institutions. I reported to the committee, but the committee was geared toward building communism in Poland. I told them in the committee that I came to Warsaw to go to Israel. The people who were interviewing me said the following, “You want to go to Israel? Do you have anyone there?” “No, I don’t.” “Do you want to continue studying?” I did. “You will go to Nowy Dwór for vacation,” they decided. “At the start of the new school year, you will go to school in Warsaw.” I was confused. I thought, “Why should I go to Israel if I can be in Warsaw?” And that’s what happened. They took me—as I was, in my only dress—to Nowy Dwór. There was a camp for Jewish youth there. At the beginning of the new year I went to lyceum. I moved into student housing at Jagiellońska Street. I then passed my matriculation at the pedagogic lyceum.
Matriculation/matura was the final examination upon completion of lyceum [high school], a prerequisite for admission to university.
I skipped over some important elements in my life. My mother survived Ravensbrück and came to Łódź (to Radogoszcz) in 1946. She had stomach cancer and soon died, but I still managed to see her alive. We saw each other for two hours. She asked, “Do you know you are Jewish?” “Why are your hands so swollen?” (I had second-degree frostbite), “Why are your teeth so horribly yellow?” (I didn’t brush my teeth at all while staying with the nuns). Mother died, which I learned about by mail, but before she did, she sent some people—Jews—for me to Międzyrzec. But what did I want with Jews? I was deeply involved in the Catholic “holy faith”. I considered Jews to be something inferior. The nuns had instilled this conviction in me. “They crucified the Lord Jesus!” And I was supposed to go with Jews? I wouldn’t hear of it. They tried to convince me for a long time. I, a young squirt—I must have been thirteen then—made stupid faces behind their backs. I was showing off in front of the nuns, saying, “I am not going to renounce the holy faith. I am not going to any Palestine (there was no Israel yet) with a bunch of strangers.” They even went to the police, trying to take me back. Nothing came of it. Those nuns, with their attitude toward Jews, had created within me a barrier, a kind of resistance, during all those years I had spent with them.
I was attracted to my colleagues from the Jewish dorms and at the same time repelled by them. When I heard them speaking Yiddish, I got goose pimples. I was unable to get used to it. I thought that somebody would come soon and put an end to “it”. It seemed impossible that they could be so calm, that they should talk and laugh. I could not find a place for myself among them. I looked at them, and the people I liked the most were those who looked the least Jewish. Those who looked the most Jewish scared me. I ran as far away from them as I could.
This also happened later. I would run away from Jews, then I’d come back to them. At times I thought I could be with some Jews, but then I really couldn’t. I ran away and pretended I didn’t have anything in common with them. Then I’d be drawn to them again, and I would come back. From the time I was a little child, I had to deny being Jewish, and this has left traces that did not allow me to think, see, or live normally. There was a popular book by Chagall’s wife called Burning Lights. People thought it was a wonderful book and admired the Jewish folklore. When I picked it up, I suddenly realized that it encompassed a Jewish world that people had tried to eradicate from within me, which I was trying to forget. I couldn’t even say what all that attraction and repulsion was all about.
I constantly come back to our (Jewish) milieu, but somewhere at the bottom of my soul, there is still some resistance. To survive, I could not “admit” to being Jewish; it was something that couldn’t be mentioned. I was supposed to go to Israel, to see a friend from the Jewish dormitory on Jagiellońska. An old hag—an awful, nosy one—in the neighborhood pharmacy asked whether I was going with a pilgrimage. I said, “Yes, with a pilgrimage.” I later tortured myself, blaming myself and my soul for my cowardice. But I also thought that this could have been the last voice of the past, perhaps some echo, all that was left. After all, there are plenty of moments in life when I feel like a stranger, and I don’t know where I belong. What can I say about it? It’s difficult to talk about it without sounding as if I am making things up. This is the “foreigner” syndrome. Even today, even though I have come to terms (that’s the wrong expression) with my origins, I still don’t feel entirely “here” or “there”. What’s left of those years, what has been depressing me as an older person, is my undeniable egoism. I think that if I had not been self-centered when I was eight or nine years old, I would not have survived. As a ten-year-old child I had to make many decisions that forced me to take only my own good into consideration, only in order to be able to survive. I clearly remember one instance when my mother was still with me, and she (or my aunt) was supposed to give me back to the peasant in the village. Mother asked me whether I was sorry to have to go there, and I, completely aware that I had to go if I wanted to save myself, answered, “I can do anything, just to survive.” For sure, my mother must have felt pained by this.
…“foreigner” syndrome – reference to the book Cudzoziemka [The Foreigner] by Maria Kuncewiczowa. (Author’s note)
During all my years of staying with the nuns, I didn’t have anything of my own, and there wasn’t anything lasting within me. When I got used to somebody, they would be taken from me. The nuns around me changed, so did the children. I didn’t have my own bed, nothing of my own. This created within me the conviction that nothing was permanent. That has probably weighed on my emotional life in later years—a feeling of instability, the conviction that I shouldn’t get used to anything or get too attached to anything, because it would be taken from me anyway. Also, the feeling that change and instability were permanent factors with which people had to learn to cope was not a positive influence on the life of a growing girl and later, on my family life.
My first husband was a Jew. I met him in the dormitory on Jagiellońska Street in Warsaw. He studied at the Wawelberg School. He was calm and placid, which I considered a positive trait at the time. I was alone. In 1952 it was clear that nothing would come of this marriage. In 1953 my son was born. When I got divorced, I turned away from Jews radically. I started working and entered a whole new social circle.
My escape from my Jewish identity also took on the following form—I suddenly decided to stop being Irena. My middle name is Augusta, and some of my acquaintances knew me by this name. This was a way of hiding—having a different name, a different surname, being a different person. My second husband (we worked together in the same publishing company) knew me only as “Agata”. My closest acquaintances know me as Agata. Then, not too long ago, I thought, “How typical that I would even hide under a changed name …” This is the end of Agata. Now I am back to being Irena again!
Excerpts of an interview with Irena Bołdok conducted by Katarzyna Meloch in 1991.