Krystyna Chudy, born in 1931
Fear was a constant companion
I was born in Łódź where I lived before the war. My father, Izaak Chudy, was a lawyer, and my mother, Irena, née Sztyller, a housewife. They both perished in Treblinka in October 1942.
My first impression of the war was the prolonged screaming of the sirens which roused me from sleep. I was told to get dressed and go down to the shelter. This was the first bombardment and the outbreak of this war so tragic in its consequences. As an eight-year-old girl at the time, I did not comprehend why all the grown-ups were so upset and frightened. First, came the bombs, fragmented shells, then a scarcity of food and lines in front of stores. Finally, German soldiers drove in on motorcycles. There was the first German parade on Piotrkowska Street and crowds of people greeting them with little flags with swastikas on them. Balconies were bedecked with portraits of Hitler.
All of this, seen through the eyes of a child, caused great bewilderment. I did not comprehend any of it. I became frightened only when I saw a man being beaten and kicked just because he, being a Jew, had dared to get in line for bread. It horrified me and became imprinted in my mind forever as my first contact with the brute force and terror of the occupation. Later came the armbands and stars when Łódź was annexed to the German Reich. The school that I attended was closed after two months, and the creation of a Jewish quarter was being talked about openly. On the night of December 11, 1939, the Germans came and brutally chased us out of our house, not permitting us to remove anything. Besides, in just a few minutes, the house caretaker and his family carried out everything that was portable. The Germans did not interfere with them in this.
“Łódź was annexed to the German Reich” – the city of Łódź was incorporated directly into Germany and renamed Litzmannstadt.
They made us walk for a long time. Heavy snow was falling. When I could no longer walk at all, I was allowed to sit down for a moment on the steps of some shop, and then, we were herded to the assembly point on Łąkowa Street. From there, trucks drove us over to a provisional camp in Radogoszcz near Łódź.
During a search in the camp, they felt about my hair for a long time (I had long braids) as if I kept some treasures in it. Finally, the German woman searching me felt a little bundle in the pocket of my skirt and, thinking that it was diamonds, pulled it out with a triumphant look. When it turned out that it was only candy drops, she slapped my face and angrily stomped the candy into the mud. I remember what a relief it was when finally, after the long march and many hours of waiting, we were allowed to lie down on a bundle of straw and fall asleep.
We were held in Radogoszcz about two days, and then, we were transported to the Kaliski Railroad Station in Łódź. There, the men were separated from the women and children and driven somewhere. When my mother turned around to see where they were taking her husband and father, the German guarding us hit her across the back with his billy club so that the poor woman staggered backwards.
Later, they loaded us into railway cars in which it was stifling hot. They transported us for some twenty hours. At the stations, women begged for some water because there were some very small children amongst us, but no one was permitted to pass it to us. In this way, we were brought to Kraków. There, we were housed in some cloister. It turned out that our men were not shot to death but were brought in one piece and in good health by the same train but in freight cars. In Kraków we were released.
The winter of 1940 was very difficult. Papa worked for little pay at unloading wagons of coal. It was extremely cold, and hunger was prevalent. By summertime, the Germans had decided to limit the number of Jewish inhabitants. Thus, we moved to Częstochowa. In April 1941, a ghetto was formed there. We were six people in a small room. It was very crowded. Other than my grandfather, everybody worked, and I cooked, washed, and continuously darned the same torn socks. I kept the fire going in the so-called gnome. It was a small iron furnace with a stovetop for cooking which connected to the tile stove. We were short of bread. For months, we ate repulsive overcooked kasha with preserves made from rutabaga. However, we were all together, and it was home.
On September 21, 1942, just before the liquidation of the ghetto began, some Polish lady came, and she decided to take me out of the ghetto. I never learned her name nor address. From that time on, no one let me in on such matters so that if caught, I would not be able to reveal anything.
When darkness began to fall, we left the house. Standing guard at the ghetto exit, a Jewish policeman whom we knew turned his back toward us and pretended not to see me. Until it was completely dark, we sat at the railroad station, and then we moved on. We walked several hours along some highway outside the city, fearfully glancing at the cars passing us to check if anyone took notice of the little girl with black braids.
From that moment on, fear accompanied me constantly. At times, it was so strong that it paralyzed all my nerves, and I was unable to breathe normally. We finally reached our destination. I was led to some garden and told to wait. That lady entered a nearby house to let her husband know whom she had brought and to decide what to do with me further. Supposedly, my uncle, who was a pediatrician, had once saved the life of their critically ill child.
I waited a long time. It was a dark warm September night. The sky was seeded with stars. The garden smelled of fall and flowers. In the distance, a dog howled. In the ghetto, it never smelled like this, and there were no flowers. Yet, it was the longest and worst night of my life. I was alone, all alone, lost in the dark unending night. It was then that I understood that everything had come to an end, that my world that had existed until then had collapsed, never to return. And whatever was to happen forever thereafter, I would be so completely alone.
Finally, the door opened, and I was let into a small house only one half of which was habitable; the rest was unfinished, without windows or floors. Littered with tools and building materials, it often served as my hideout when a stranger appeared in the house. Sometimes, when a nosy neighbor arrived unannounced, the bed was made up with me in it under an eiderdown. There was no air to breathe, and I could not move until that neighbor cleared out.
Later, when Germans started appearing in the area more and more frequently, they dug out a tiny cave for me in the basement of the unfinished house. The small opening would be closed with a couple of bricks, and I could barely crawl through it. Inside, there was also very little space and little headroom. I could only lift myself a little on my hands and pull in my legs. I spent many days there, and only at night, I would be let back into the house. Once, Germans burst in unexpectedly, and there was no time to squeeze into the cave. I sneaked under a pile of potatoes. I heard the Germans shouting. They stuck their bayonets into the potatoes under which I was lying. I was panic-stricken that if they reached me, I would cry out and betray myself.
Fortunately, it turned out well for me. Nobody came upon me or guessed what was hiding under those potatoes. Later, I sat in my cave all the time, although it was difficult for me to change position. I felt somewhat safer there. Many times, I begged my hosts to lead me to the forest to the partisans. I knew they were hiding out in the forest near Częstochowa. I truly did not want these people to endanger themselves and their children because of me. In the end, my real guardian, as it later turned out, came for me and placed me in a horse-drawn cab with its top lowered and drove me to her house.
“real guardian” – Helena Łukowska. (communication from author).
It was the spring of 1943, and it was very dangerous all the time. I was placed with various people so that I would not be staying too long in one place. For a while, I stayed with some lady in a very small apartment in a garret. Along a long corridor, there were many doors to individual apartments and to the garrets. One day, Germans suddenly burst into the courtyard of the building. The owner of the apartment simply ran out of the house, leaving me locked inside.
I sat ever so quietly, like a mouse under a broom, listening attentively to the stomping of hobnailed military boots drawing near and the pounding on particular doors. And what an amazing surprise! The Germans checked out many apartments, and when they were already approaching my door, they suddenly gave up, thinking that this was only an empty garret. Their shouting receded into the distance. “Oof!” I breathed a sigh of relief. Before that, I probably was not breathing at all.
Shortly after this incident, the lady looking after me decided to go with me to Częstochowa. She reported voluntarily for work in Germany, and when she received the proper papers, she simply wrote in “+ ein kind” (and one child). The border of the German Reich was located very close to Częstochowa. She crossed the border legally by train, and I was to be brought over surreptitiously by a smuggler who worked for the Germans. He rode me on his bicycle to the border bridge. There, he placed a stick in my hand (I had a scarf on my head and wore a summer dress and was then quite tiny) and told me to cut across the meadow next to the border, driving a flock of grazing geese. I got across. What was I supposed to do? A short distance beyond the border checkpoint, he met me and took me safely to his acquaintances in Gnaszyn (a village near Częstochowa on the German side), where the lady looking after me was already waiting.
Without further obstacles, we got to Leipzig. There, we were placed in an international (forced labor camp). After two days and a thorough quarantine, where many women were beaten and maltreated, allegedly, because they were not clean enough, we were assigned to work. Since I was only twelve years old, we did not get sent to the munitions factory, where frightful terror reigned, but instead were sent beyond the city to a winery. We lived in a stable ten kilometers away from our place of work, and although it was August, we left for work in the dark in order to arrive on time. These were splendid walks at sunrise along an empty highway through fields. After such a long time of having been cooped up without moving and frequently being in total darkness, this road leading to work outside in open space gave me a feeling of freedom. Here, nobody suspected that I might be a Jewish girl, and I was less afraid. Coming back was worse. After a full day, weariness took its toll.
I had quite a difficult job; I poured wine. Since I was very small, I stood all by myself in front of eight spouts under which I placed empty bottles and removed them when full. I was able to manage this although my skin cracked because wine poured on me continuously. I stood there in only wooden clogs and a rubber apron. Thus, I was wet all over. As for food, we were given watery soup thickened with browned flour and a slice of bread. Occasionally, we managed to steal a little sugar and a few apples from which the wine was made. Sometimes, I was called to the kitchen where I helped young German girls prepare pig feed. For that, I received a beet or a tomato. After a month of such work, my guardian reminded the boss that we were supposed to get soap to wash ourselves and our clothes. The boss was angered by the demand and simply threw us out as rebels.
We returned to Leipzig, and there in the Arbeitsamt (employment office) we were sent as helpers to work in a restaurant. Here, it was even good. Nobody suspected my origins, and the bosses came to like me very much. I cleaned the restaurant and the private apartment and helped with peeling vegetables and washing up. I did not go hungry. It was warm, and I was not afraid.
In late fall, air raids and bombardments began. We were glad when foreign airplanes made raids, but it was becoming more and more dangerous. Entire streets were in flames. Some buildings were literally collapsing into the ground. We worked almost without a break because soup had to be cooked and carried around to those who were bombed out.
In March 1944, our street was also bombed. All at once, everything was on fire. People were throwing their things out from windows, everything they could. After ten or twenty minutes, the entire street was in flames. It was bright as daylight. We stood in the middle of the pavement in the midst of a row of burning buildings, and now, we, in turn, were brought hot meals.
As people who were completely bombed out, we received a month leave but only within the territory of the Reich. My guardian had family in Poznań, so we went there. But in Germany no one could remain without work so they assigned me to be a helper in a German restaurant. Good fortune continued to be with me. The work was not too difficult. I cleaned the private apartment and the restaurant and served meals. Although I replaced a Polish girl who had been beaten almost to death, no one bothered me. I knew German, I was clean, and I knew how to work. Sometimes, the woman in charge would secretly slip me a hunk of sausage, and she was satisfied with me.
Poznań is located in western Poland but within the province that had been annexed to Germany.
However, I had to be continuously on guard. In Germany, it would not have entered anyone’s head that I could be a Jew. Here, however, some eyed me attentively and suspiciously. When I realized that someone was watching me, I completely stopped going out from the house.
Finally, the Germans checked up on the fact that we had extended our leave and sent us a strict order to return to Germany. My guardian was homesick for her own family in Częstochowa and decided to return to them. We arrived at Kreuzberg which was then a junction station. It was nighttime, and a sleepy ticket seller was at the counter. I walked up to the window and without any problems, I bought tickets to Gnaszyn near Częstochowa. In the case of a control check, we were going to feign surprise that we had mixed up the trains. There was no control check, and without problems, we arrived at our destination.
We wanted to await contact with our smuggler in the already familiar apartment. However, on that very day, the Germans were planning to publicly hang partisans caught at the border. The villagers, to a man, were to be witnesses to the execution. Gnaszyn is a small village, and everybody there knew each other. Whether we wanted to or not, we had to make our escape at daybreak. We were led though a complex of buildings of some factory and left there. A little further on was a watchtower with windows on all sides, and inside it were armed guards. We had to walk right past these windows and continue through an open field. Buildings in this field were already located on the side of the General Government. We walked some distance from each other, not running and not looking back. There wasn’t even time to be afraid. I only listened whether bullets were whizzing by, and I thought that if they hit me, they would kill me on the spot. I don’t know how it happened, but no one shot at us, and without any difficulties, we reached our destination. Now, it was a little calmer, and I could stay in the apartment. One day in the afternoon, I was washing dishes, when unexpectedly, the Germans burst in and began to check whether everybody was working. The sister of my guardian, an actress who knew German fluently, never lost her cool. She told the Germans a tale, that I was the out-of-wedlock child of her colleague, an actress, and that, while running away from the Bolsheviks, I got lost from my mother and knowing this address, I wanted to wait for her here. The story worked.
General Government – this was the part of Poland occupied by the Germans but not incorporated into Germany itself, hence, the border. Polish territory bordering Germany was incorporated into it, while the rest of Poland, though occupied by Germany (General Government), was governed as a separate province.
However, they put me in the back of a truck in order to take me to work. I watched carefully where we were heading. If the truck turned in the direction of the Gestapo, I thought that would be the end of me. Fortunately, the truck drove directly toward the Arbeitsamt.
I pretended that I did not understand German when the Germans were telling all the clerks that story. They decided that, as a daughter of an actress who did not like Bolsheviks, I could work in a doll theater being formed. They issued me work orders and told me to return home. Meanwhile, the uprising broke out in Warsaw, and after its collapse, refugees showed up everywhere. The Russians were approaching closer and closer, and the Germans could no longer be bothered with checking whether everyone was working. So, without any new adventures, I lived to see the January Soviet offensive, the flight of the Germans, and liberation.
Warsaw, November 1992