Jan Klapper-Karpiński, born in 1930
I was born in Kraków on January 27, 1930, into a middle-class Jewish family. My father was the business manager of the Solvay soda factory in Kraków. He was an orphan, brought up in a children’s home. Starting as a messenger, he advanced to this position through his own efforts. Mama, whose maiden name was Blausstein, was from Lwów. After World War I her parents lived in Vienna with Mama’s younger brother. Mama had two other brothers, one of whom emigrated to Belgium in the thirties and the other of whom, Uncle Lolek, lived in Łódź. There were three of us at home—my eldest half-brother, Alfred, born in 1915, the middle one, Rudolf, who was born in 1921, and me, the youngest one.
On September 3, 1939, when the German forces were nearing Kraków, Mama took all three of us and we fled to Lwów. Father remained at his post in the factory. We lived in Lwów until the German-Soviet war broke out. In the first days of July 1941, in commemoration of the assassination of Petlura, there was a roundup in which Mama and Rudolf were caught. All trace of them vanished. Alfred and I were left all alone.
After the formation of the ghetto in Lwów we moved within its confines, to Janowska Street. The situation within the ghetto was becoming increasingly difficult; hunger loomed. My brother decided to send me back to my father in Kraków. On Christmas Day in 1941, he put me on a train with wounded German soldiers returning from the front.
Simon Petlura, a Ukrainian Nationalist leader, was assassinated in Paris on May 25, 1926, by a Jew. With the encouragement of the Germans, the Ukrainian police carried out the so-called “Operation Petlura” in late July and early August 1941.
In Kraków I found shelter on the Aryan side with my nanny, Katarzyna Żołna, who had always lived with us. I stayed there until September 1942. Father lived in the ghetto and visited us often, protected by ironclad documents issued to him by the firm Solvay, which also paid his salary. Despite this, during an “action” in the ghetto in May 1942, Father was caught and sent to one of the death camps—where he was killed. In September 1942 my nanny received the news that my older brother, Alfred, was killed in a similar way.
I was left alone without any resources, supported by my nanny who was living off her pension. The danger grew. The people from whom my nanny was renting her room were afraid to hide a Jew, so I was forced to move to the ghetto. I lived with, or rather found shelter with, acquaintances of my parents, who helped me a little. At the same time I was trying to earn a living by selling cigarettes on the street. I was able to survive several liquidation roundups, thanks to help from a Jewish policeman, a friend of my hosts, who used to take me out of the ghetto while an action was in progress.
While on the Aryan side, I camped out in the park area surrounding the old city. My nanny helped feed me. After the action was over, I would sneak back into the ghetto.
In the middle of March 1943, the Kraków ghetto was liquidated. The Germans sent all those able to work to the camp in Płaszów. The rest were to be liquidated. I tried to squeeze my way into the column of people going to the Płaszów camp, but my short stature betrayed me as a child. An SS man chased me out of the column with a club. I was wandering through the streets, when suddenly, a wagon driver whom I didn’t know pulled me up onto the platform of his cart, hid me under a pile of bedding, and drove me outside the barbed wire of the ghetto.
On the Aryan side I jumped off the cart and contacted my nanny. The situation seemed hopeless, because she had no place to keep me. I decided to go to Warsaw, where my Uncle Lolek, Mama’s brother, was hiding. I had the address of his brother-in-law, a Pole. I sneaked aboard a night train full of smugglers (the more crowded it was, the safer) going to Warsaw. In the morning, after I got off the train, I was nabbed by some blackmailers. I had nothing and couldn’t ransom myself. They handed me over to the Polish police at the station on Jerozolimskie Avenue. The police checked my origins but let me go free, warning me that I better not show up in that area again.
…“checked my origins” – they examined him to see if he was circumcised.
I found my uncle, who arranged to get me a false birth certificate and a school identification card. Having these papers, I began my life on the Aryan side, often changing my hiding place. Once I was hiding at Hotel Pod Różami, where I was caught by the vice squad. But once again they set me free, only admonishing the owner to never allow any Jews there again. Thanks to some help, I once again found a new place and stayed there until the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising. I took part in it, serving in fire-fighting squads.
Warsaw Uprising – not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Uprising by the general population of Warsaw against the Germans, beginning August 1, 1944, just as the Red Army was approaching Warsaw. The Red Army, however, delayed its arrival in Warsaw, and the Germans were able to suppress the uprising and destroy the city. The Germans then dispersed masses of people from Warsaw to the countryside, many to camps in the nearby town of Pruszków.
After capitulation and the expulsion of the population of Warsaw, I hid in the rubble around Napoleon Square. This is where liberation found me on January 17, 1945.
Summarizing my wartime adventures, I believe I survived only thanks to good fortune (why did it happen particularly to me?), a convergence of various coincidences, and help from noble people to whose memory I dedicate these recollections.
Napoleon Square – this square, located not far from the main post office, is now called Plac Powstańców Warszawy [Insurgents of Warsaw Square].