Jadwiga (Wicher) Kotowska, née Braun, born in 1934
The Little Smuggler
I come from a family of tradespeople. Before the war, my grandfather owned seven hackney carriages. He lived on Grzybowska Street in Warsaw. I most likely lived on Twarda Street, but my grandfather had his stables on Grzybowska. Grandma—as much as I remember of her—wore a wig. Grandma and Grandpa were Hasidic Jews. They were religious people, for sure. I lost my mother as a young child, before the war. I don’t remember her at all. On the other hand, I remember our maid well; I remember her extremely well. She became my mother, but that was later. At first she was the maid for my grandparents, but then when Mama died, she came to us. She was a country girl—simple, but good. She must have been good if I liked her. I became a child of the streets only because of the war. After all, I remember that Papa used to spend a lot of money; I took piano lessons and had a governess for French. That means we could afford it. They established a ghetto. Just before the war broke out, Papa had bought a house; we lived on Stanisławowska Street in Grochów.
Grochów is a district of Warsaw on the eastern side of the Vistula River.
Then the war started, and later, they set up the ghetto and we had to move to the Jewish quarter. I don’t remember the move itself; I was too young. I do remember the wall and the corpses. I find it difficult to talk about this even today. I was there from the beginning until January 1943. I was a smuggler. I supported the whole family; everyone waited for me to bring something from the Polish side.
…“waited for me to bring something from the Polish side” – children were able to slip in and out of the ghetto more easily than adults.
They wrapped me in various things—shirts, blouses, sweaters, and they bandaged me. With these on I stole across the wall. If the guards at the checkpoint were nice, they let us through, if they weren’t, well, then they wouldn’t.
In a TV movie I saw, there are several children in the Little Ghetto. We sneak past the guard post. At that moment we get caught by a Jewish policeman; that is the scene. Having had no idea that such a film had been recorded, I recognized myself in it. The Jewish policeman, beating me with his club, dumps out the potatoes and flour or sugar—at this point in time, it is difficult for me to say which. That’s one scene. Well, I am more than sure that it was me, with a group of other children. In the second scene, my aunt and I are in the middle of the ghetto. This is the Little Ghetto. We are begging, asking for alms. I used to arrange to meet our maid somewhere near the center of town. She would always promise, “Jadzia [Jadwiga], don’t worry, I’ll come to get you.”
The Little Ghetto was the southern part of the Warsaw Ghetto, bound by Wielka, Sienna, Żelazna, and Chłodna Streets, connected to the Big Ghetto by a wooden bridge over Wolska Street. (Author’s note)
My uncle—my father’s brother, who was eleven or twelve, perhaps sixteen, well, I don’t know—used to go with me. Something very important happened. I crossed over, but he got caught by a Polish policeman on the Aryan side. The policeman was hitting his head against the curb for so long—blood was pouring out—that for sure he killed him. He opened the sewer and threw him inside. I saw this with my very own eyes; I was watching from a hideout. It is difficult to talk about it… I was sure he had died. He’d been crossing over with me to the Polish side for quite a while. I knew everyone was dying, but I wanted to live. I felt that in me. Nonetheless, I was convinced that I wouldn’t survive, that I simply would not be able to last!
I had a very large family. Grandma didn’t want to take any food for a very long time, because it wasn’t kosher, but then she started to when she got weaker. She didn’t get out of bed (if you didn’t eat, how could you walk?) …. Later she began to eat but still couldn’t get out of bed. We knocked out a hole in the cupboard. We hid there during an “action”, but Grandma wasn’t with us, because we decided we wouldn’t be able to take her along. She was killed during the action.
This was already 1942; the summer was hot. Difficult memories. There are wounds that don’t bleed anymore, but when one talks about it, these wounds start bleeding again. It’s tough then. Everything appears before one’s eyes. One sees and feels everything—all over again. Whenever I have any stress, any worries—the corpses come back, even more so because I saw so many uncovered bodies. In the morning, I was supposed to go out when they hadn’t yet had the time to take them away, or even cover them—unless the snow covered them. At night I dream of eiderdown, so much down, and I see that down on the streets, in houses, on staircases, in courtyards—everywhere. I remember a lot of down in the ghetto—on roofs, in attics, in hideouts, wherever (_). Sometimes I wake up with the fear that my pillow or comforter has been ripped open and the down is pouring out. At first I very often had these dreams—and would wake up at night. As the years went by, things began to calm down.
…“I remember a lot of down in the ghetto” – down pillows and comforters were a favorite place for hiding valuables. Seeing down flying in the air meant that there had been a search and they had been ripped open.
Back to smuggling. I was afraid, I really was afraid. Other children did it; I saw them do it, but I didn’t take the initiative. I simply think that Papa agreed with our former maid that I, as a child, would have the best chance of getting across and bringing something back. Not only I went; Papa also used to go over to the Polish side. In fact, in the meantime, he was trying to get us Aryan papers. I was the main supplier. Other children used to go as well, in groups of four or five. Some wouldn’t come back again; we didn’t wait for them. Of course, whenever there was an opportunity, we went through. The next day, looking around the courtyard, we knew that some of the children had been caught, killed, bludgeoned to death, or taken during an action. These weren’t fixed groups. I always had arrangements to meet with my “mother”, meaning the maid, who always waited for me on the Aryan side and would lead me to the apartment of her friends, the Dworakowskis, I believe.
I was only a smuggler. Nobody thought about educating me. I suspect that my family wasn’t all that rich. The best evidence is that I started to take out rags brought to me by others, from other homes or apartments where three or four families lived together. Perhaps I carried valuables, too, but I didn’t know anything about it; they just wrapped me in bandages, and I sneaked out looking like a little barrel. At first I used to sneak out through the Little Ghetto. I remember that bridge clearly, but I don’t recall who tore the bridge down. I used to run At the beginning, we even played games there—as children do. I don’t know how that bridge later disappeared, or in what way; that bothers me a bit. I would like to see that bridge, those steps, lots of steps.
…“bridge later disappeared” – the bridge between the large and small ghettos was torn down when the Little Ghetto was eliminated.
Our former maid supplied me with provisions. When I used to cross over to the Aryan side, I sometimes rebelled, especially if I got caught and beaten. That happened three times. Of course, no one from my family forced me to go out of the ghetto. I had a large family. Most likely no one survived. I have already lived my life. I now have children and grandchildren. But somewhere, in the secret part of my soul, I’d like to have one of my loved ones.
Back to smuggling again. Things were getting worse; it was harder and harder to get through, more difficult to get anything. The hunger was terrible. We sneaked past the guard post and went through some hole. Sometimes we slipped through the Court House, though rarely, because we were somehow strangely afraid of the courts. I was supposed to cross over to the Polish side. There were four or five of us. They simply rounded us up on the street, a bunch of children, and we were on our way to Umschlagplatz. It was an action aimed at children. I suspect (but can’t be sure) that this was at the time when Korczak’s orphanage was being liquidated, because there were lots of children. It was in 1942 that I got caught, if I am not mistaken.
The Court House on Leszno Street had two entrances, one from Ogrodowa Street, on the side of the ghetto, and the other on the Aryan side; this passageway was used for illegal exit from and entry to the ghetto. (Author’s note)
Umschlagplatz is a square on Stawki Street that was used as a transfer point where people were gathered for deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camps. (Author’s note)
Korczak’s orphanage – Janusz Korczak, real name Henryk Goldschmidt, was a famous physician, writer, educator, and director of a children’s home before the war and later in the Warsaw Ghetto. He refused asylum on the Aryan side and accompanied his young charges to Treblinka, where they all perished. Revered by Poles and Jews alike for his courage and dedication.
I must mention that Grandpa had a horse, already his last horse, and he had the right to go everywhere to pick up corpses. I don’t know how Grandpa knew—whether he spotted me, or perhaps guessed it. He never told me, but at one moment, I felt someone pick me up by my coat and sit on me. He drove with me under the driver’s seat, among corpses, out of the Umschlagplatz. He took me out and passed me on to my mother (our maid) and told her, “Bronia, if there is a God, if you say that you love Jadzia and care for Józek (meaning my father), remember, I am going to die. Rózia (my grandmother) is already gone. Remember, you must protect Jadzia; she can’t go back to the ghetto again.” I can’t remember anymore, however, whether I went back to the ghetto at that time or not.
I know of this conversation between Grandpa and Mother from my mother’s lips. That Grandpa drove me to the Jewish cemetery and that she was there, that I know for sure. A strange resentment remains from the ghetto—those restaurants and stores full of food and us begging on the street—so repugnant. Today I certainly look at some things in a different light . . . well. . . but the fear was terrible, it was indeed terrible. When later in 1943 my father led Grandpa and me to the Aryan side, I was no longer Jochewed or Jadwiga Braun, just Jadzia Zalewska. I was simply given the maiden name of our servant, and she became my mother. I wasn’t very old then—eight, nine, at the most. I kept on trading; I still had to support my mother. She had a child, a boy, that is, my stepbrother. Somebody had to stay with that child.
I got caught by the Gestapo, denounced by someone. They took me to Szucha Avenue and beat me terribly. I have marks on my back to this day. I knew I was a Jew. I don’t know how, as a child, I was able to do it, how I managed not to say that I was a Jew! They must have checked. They were at Mrs. Zalewska’s, my mother’s house, and they checked. Yes, but she told them I was her illegitimate child and that she had nothing to do with any Jews. I was released after three days (it must have cost a fair amount of money), beaten and black and blue all over. I lay sick for six weeks, couldn’t move either a hand or a leg. I don’t know how I got back from Szucha Avenue to Stalowa Street. I don’t know how it happened at all. I only remember the “streetcar” in which they kept me. Those benches with the torturers sitting on them back-to-back. But as to the faces, they’ve become completely blurred. Besides, it wasn’t just one person who interrogated me or just one person who beat me! To this day I have marks on my back.
Szucha Avenue was the site of Gestapo headquarters.
The “streetcar” was the nickname for a long corridor with benches at Gestapo headquarters.
I had a birth certificate in a little bag made to wear around my neck. I wore it on a piece of string. We only had enough money for my papers; my father also needed papers for himself. Well, my father, as a tradesman had many connections (before the war we had stores, kiosks on the Kercelak Bazaar and at the Mirowski Market). He thought that somehow he would be able to get the money for himself, one way or another, maybe he would borrow it from his friends. He had lots of them; they respected him very much and knew him well. Unfortunately, it happened that one colleague pointed him out. This happened near the Mirowski Market. Father ran in the direction of the Saski Garden. He was killed. I was told about it. I didn’t see it myself.
The Saski Garden is a large public garden in central Warsaw.
He was lying with half his face resting on the spot where the slab of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is today (that slab wasn’t there then, of course). Papa lay there nearly a whole day. Then his friends came and brought my mother and took me in their arms so we could see Father one last time! He lay covered with newspapers. I started screaming. Father’s friends held me in their arms, covered my mouth, and took me to some stairway. They were simply afraid that I would run up to my father. This was my final farewell to Father. He couldn’t be buried as a Pole, because he didn’t have any documents. A truck arrived, he was thrown on it, and they drove off. We don’t know where he lies. This was already 1943.
I couldn’t accept it; I knew it, but I didn’t believe it. I kept thinking that the door would open, and he would walk in. I remember how Father was leaving the house on that last day. I remember very well what he wore, but his face has grown dim. One thing I know for sure; he was bald, completely bald. He was stocky, of a stocky build, and I see him, I see how he walks out of the house, but what eyes he had, his mouth, his nose . . . I don’t know.
It is very difficult for me because I don’t know where my loved ones lie. I would very much like to have at least one grave in order to honor the memory of all of them, my entire family. Very often, when I am alone at home (lying or reading), in a flash, the times of the occupation come to mind. I think of the ghetto, about that childhood of mine, about this family, about the joyfulness that reigned, and then I start crying, because I miss them. I would like so much to at least have the graves of my dearest ones, meaning my aunts and Father, not to even mention the more distant relatives that I remember. For me this is a tragedy, that is why I mourn them to this day.
Right after the liberation, I went straight to the ghetto, that means to the ruins of the ghetto. All of Warsaw was one big ruin, but I, as a Warsaw newspaper girl, went to the ghetto. Something was smoldering inside me, that somebody would be there, that somebody would be alive. Being a child, I slipped through with a government delegation crossing the pontoon bridge. This was in January. Somehow, I strongly believed that someone would be there. It didn’t enter my consciousness that nobody from my family would be there. I wouldn’t admit it. I knew that there was a place called Treblinka, but I didn’t imagine at all that people could be finished off like that. (I wasn’t in the ghetto during its final liquidation.) Besides, some inner feeling told me that somebody would be there. Anyway, I kept waiting. All the time. If anybody unknown moved about the courtyard, I expected…that maybe it was for me…that they were looking for me. I was waiting for that moment.
I know that the ghetto was cleared of rubble. I worked there so passionately as a child. The Jewish youth and I—my picture was in the newspaper. I believed that I would find something under that rubble; I believed it so strongly. The most likely place to find me was in the ruins of the ghetto—with newspapers, soda water, rolls, anything I could sell. Jews took me from the street with my bundle of newspapers, and, well, as a child, I was impressed by their respectable clothing and new shoes. First, the Central Committee of Polish Jews assigned me to a children’s home in Śródborów, near Warsaw. They wanted me to be a child, but, of course, I was no longer a child. I already knew what money was and how to spend it. I knew how to hustle, trade, and swindle. I was eleven. Why would I suddenly want to be a child? So I ran away from Śródborów.
Instinctively, I did not want to be a Jew and had already somehow transformed myself into being a Pole. In general, it was a tragedy for me that I had to go to a Jewish orphanage. That’s why there were all those escapes.
Later they took me to Bytom. I stayed there a week, maybe. I ran away at night, barefoot. I rode in the lavatory compartment of a train, without a ticket, from Katowice to Warsaw.
The police dragged me out of that lavatory. They took me to the Central Committee of Polish Jews. They put me in some home. I was supposed to have been transferred to another children’s home, but of course, I escaped, as usual. I couldn’t be a child, I didn’t know how to be one. So I ended up in an orphanage in Chorzów. Again I ran away. Again the police. After two escapes from Chorzów, I didn’t try a third time, because I was beginning to feel good there. The orphanage in Chorzów was closed, and we were transferred to Bielsko. There, slowly, slowly, I regained my childhood; then came the most beautiful years, which I recall with pleasure to this day.
When I wanted to call other children names, I called them “Jews”. Whether we were playing volleyball, palant, or dwa ognie, if I didn’t like something, I’d yell, “You dirty Jew!” I was simply scared to be a Jew. (Let someone else be a Jew; why should I be a Jew?) I was no longer Jochewed; I was already Jadzia. “They” were the Jews. I was not a Jew. There were four of us children who knelt and said our Catholic prayers in the evening.
Palant is a game similar to baseball, played with a stick and a small rubber ball.
Dwa ognie [two fires] – a ball game in which the opponent is attacked from two sides.
Then came a moment in the orphanage when I took my prayer book to the principal. I told her, “I’m not a Christian anymore.” It was the other side of the coin. When I gave back that prayer book—because I didn’t need it (although I didn’t want it to be destroyed)—I immediately became a Jew.
Later, in 1950, the orphanage was closed. I was taken to a dormitory in Warsaw at 28 Jagiellońska Street. I was the only one from the teachers’ lyceum there; everyone else was a university student except two who were already working. Nobody was interested in me. I was left alone. I didn’t have money for textbooks or notebooks. I was hungry. I gave up school and returned to my former profession—street trade. I started selling ice cream. And so I began being a grown-up again. All alone. I think that the Jews made a big mistake by leaving me all alone. Why did they give me those few carefree years? If I had stayed on the street with my bundle of newspapers, I wouldn’t have experienced the taste of something better. Mother (i.e., our maid) didn’t want to take me in with her. Once again I had no roof over my head. Again I stayed in parks and attics.
I met my husband, with whom I had two children—two daughters—who are grown up now. We had a single room on the third floor. You had to carry water up and carry it back down. I never hid my being Jewish from my children. Both my husbands also knew. It didn’t bother the first one; there was no problem. Only when he was drunk or was trying to annoy me, he would call me a Jew. In the 1960s and at the beginning of the ‘70s, my husband and I applied several times for emigration to Israel, but we were refused each time. I wrote everywhere I could, but we were always refused. My husband and I decided that I would go with the children. He agreed that the children could go. We counted on the fact that I would then try to bring him over, so that there we would again be reunited. Well, in the end, we got divorced, and there came a moment when I received permission to go to Israel and a notification to pick up my passport. My husband took me on the staircase, started to cry terribly, and said, “Listen Jadwiga, I’m not worth much anyway, and when you go, it’ll be the bottom of the pit for me. I’ll never see my children again. I’m afraid I’ll never be allowed to leave.” And I was really moved by that. After all, I did have children with him. I felt sorry for him, and I gave up my plans for leaving.
I consider myself a sick, morally broken person. I regret that my life did not evolve as it should have, because of the war and the ghetto. I’ve had a very difficult life.
As told by Jadwiga Wicher, current name Kotowska, to Katarzyna Meloch in an interview for the Kestenberg Foundation in 1994.