Krystyna Zielińska, born in 1924
I Was to be a Boy…
My ten-year-old sister, Sabina, and my younger sister, Lunia, age six, were already born. My parents wanted to have a boy, so they tried once again . . . and I came into the world. Father, hearing the news, simply ran out of the clinic. He already had an army of females at home!
In the Jewish community office they didn’t want to give me the name Krystyna. They said, “Perhaps Krajndla”. But for a bribe of five złotys, they consented. And thus throughout my entire life, I’ve almost never changed my first name, but my last name—about a hundred times. I was, counting backward—Krystyna Zielińska, previously Krystyna Dąbrowa, before that my name was Aleksandra Mlonka and Krystyna Wierzbołowicz. When in the “March” years, we were required to fill out personal questionnaires, the item “previous name” was very important, and I had plenty to write down. Somehow, I never went back as far as Krystyna Rozental.
“March” years – In March 1968, there were student demonstrations in Poland against government censorship. They were crushed by the Communist regime and blamed on “Zionists” (some of the students and professors who backed them were Jewish). A wave of anti-Zionism and antisemitism followed. Jews were accused of not being loyal to Poland and were often demoted or summarily dismissed from their jobs. Many Jews who had survived in Poland or returned to Poland after the war then emigrated (about 30,000).
I was a good-looking, healthy child, but regrettably, a little plump, and not very well coordinated. Mama enrolled me in Tacjanna Wysocka’s ballet school, but somehow I gave up on a career as a dancer. Then I began ice skating in the Rau Garden. There was music, and there were eleven- or twelve-year-old boys, who, looking at my rosy cheeks and snow-white sweater, began calling me, I didn’t know why, “Brightened with Radion”. Radion was a laundry detergent, and an ad for it hung on the wall surrounding the rink. That white sweater and my ruddy cheeks really did make me look like a live advertisement.
The Rau Garden was a sports garden for children inside the Saski Garden in Warsaw.
My parents tried hard to turn me into a “young lady from a good home”, even though, in reality, we were not that well off. And so I was not allowed to play with other children in the courtyard; that was my unfulfilled dream. I used to go out on my second-floor balcony and toss down various cutouts and toys, calling out, “Hey, kids, take these!” My contemporaries liked that a lot, but they must have thought it a bit strange, because someone wrote in chalk on my stairway “Krysia [Krystyna] Rozental is crazy!”
A few words about our apartment building. It had three courtyards and was located right next to All Saints Church and Grzybowski Square. The front apartments were occupied by doctors and, in general, so-called better tenants. Hasidic Jews lived with their families on the left side, and on the right, all sorts of indigents. I remember a cobbler with five children. He made shoes (navy blue pumps for one złoty), but was still unable to pay the rent. Thus, without ceremony, he was thrown out into the courtyard, but, sitting at his machine, out in the open, he continued to make those shoes. Hasidic families had a lot of children. I remember a mother in a wig who had a two-year-old toddler, and her daughter had a son the same age. At the time of the holidays, a booth was set up in the large courtyard, and the men prayed there for perhaps a week. But on all other days, the courtyard belonged to the children. Its main “decorative” element was a large trash bin.
…“the men prayed there for perhaps a week” – the booth [sukkah] was for the holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, which occurs in the fall right after the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah [New Year] and Yom Kippur [Day of Atonement].
The ground was paved with cobblestones. There was no question of any plants or even a bit of grass. The children of the courtyard played and danced around the trash bin. I remember one fragment from their repertoire: “Because we are young, and this is our might. Nothing can stop us, we’re singing day and night. The whole world belongs to us. It’s a young people’s world, it’s a young people’s world. And he who does not believe us, let him lie like this log!!!”
Rent was very high. I remember we paid more than 128 złotys for a three-room apartment. There were the usual tile stoves, coal was kept in the cellar, the bathtub was set up in the kitchen, and the water heater was in the lavatory. During wartime, this tub was filled with water and covered with boards. My uncle, Maks Feldberg, whose family stayed with us during bombings, fell into the water as he slept. It was not clear why he then said to my father, resentfully, “Anti-Semites”.
A medical practitioner named Wiewiórka lived on the ground floor of my entry and was everything to everybody. He used to apply cupping glasses (for which I despised him) and made unerring diagnoses for adults and children.
Cupping glasses were used to draw out what was considered “corrupt” blood from the patient as a cure.
A twelve-year-old boy, Henio, with his two-year-old brother, Bobuś, was allowed to visit me for company. Bobuś’s head was covered with golden curls, and he looked like an angel from one of my notebooks (because at that time we wrote with pens dipped in ink and had to use blotting paper, which was attached by a ribbon with a picture of an angel on it). Henio, when older, reasoned, “You, Krysia, are going to die first, because you are the oldest, then me, then Bobuś will be last.” This prediction of the course of human destiny, though logical, did not come to pass. Both boys were gassed in Treblinka, and only I, the oldest, miraculously remained among the living. At home, however, I was the youngest, which truly pained me. We sat in the dining room, and Mama would carve a chicken. First, she would give Father a thigh, which I really wanted, the second thigh would go to my oldest sister, Sabina, the breast to Lunia, and I, the runt—got only the wings. I was convinced that my parents did not love me, that they preferred my older sisters, and there were times when I sat in the lavatory and shed tears. Unfortunately, I was not there alone.
In those days, people bought live chickens, and before they were turned into soup and meat, they were kept on a string in the lavatory. And so I daydreamed there, in the presence of this wretched bird, that I would die, have a solemn funeral, and my parents would follow the casket, crying in despair. That would be my revenge for the chicken wings, for not letting me out in the yard to play, and for my supposedly being so healthy, sturdy, and plump! I was drawn to these thoughts by a book for youngsters entitled Jur. It was about two brothers—Tadzik, weak, sickly, and constantly looked after, and an older brother, Jur, just the opposite. He was a picture of health. And who finally died? Jur, of course!
Jur is a children’s book by L. M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables), translated into Polish (Poznań: Wydawnictwo J. Nitecki, 1931).
However, Mama took care of my health very thoroughly. She gave me salt baths and took me to the vats where tar was heated, because that was good for whooping cough. And what was the worst, however, was that she constantly took me to the Saski Garden so I could breathe fresh air. I was to be at school at eleven, but my grandfather, Alfred Rozental, would come by before eight o’clock and take me to the garden. This is where, early in the morning, all the Jewish tailors would meet. There were hundreds of them in Warsaw before the war. They held meetings in Writers’ Lane (not far from the sundial), as they had plenty of common topics to discuss. My grandfather was not just any tailor; he lectured in the vocational school for Jewish youth, which was located on Grzybowska Street, and he had his own workshop at 139 Marszałkowska Street. He mostly sewed military uniforms. In the front window of his shop there stood tiny mannequins dressed in clothes Grandpa had made. It is worth noting that in prewar Warsaw, neighborhood counted for a lot. To be a tailor on Nalewki, Franciszkańska, or on Nowolipki, that was an ordinary thing, but Marszałkowska—well, that was already French elegance.
All three of us attended the same elementary school and the same high school. Mama was active in the parents’ committee, and it was probably her doing that got me accepted into first grade when I was only six years old. For breakfast I would take, in a little basket, a small cake, the so-called little mushroom, because I couldn’t handle sandwiches. I also had difficulty buttoning my underpants. They had little white cloth buttons that attached them to the bodice, and it wasn’t at all easy, so Marysia Brodecka used to help me. Mama called her parents “Litvaks”, a label I felt was pejorative.
Breakfast – this was probably the Polish “second breakfast”, a late morning snack.
From my youngest years I took part in school performances. My fondest dream was to play the lead parts. Once, I was supposed to be a cornflower in a group scene. Anulka Rawet was a poppy. The only thing was, she was put in front of me. There was no stopping me. Although I was pushed back to the second row again and again and even accepted it at the dress rehearsal, during the actual show, I moved out in front again!
I, as a somewhat older child of the Holocaust, recall a childhood that was, in perspective, idyllic and angelic. Since I have lived a bit longer than those unfortunate children born just before or during the war, I have retained a piece of the normal world, which I am now trying to convey in these recollections.
When “Children of the Holocaust” members who were born in 1940 or 1942 speak at psychotherapy sessions in Śródborów, the same theme comes up time and time again. They have sons and daughters, they are caring parents, but they have not been able to give their children emotional warmth because they themselves never received it. Marysia, sixty years old now, cries when she talks about this. Jurek writes poetry. His mother died when he was two, and his father raised him the best he knew how, but until his death, he never told his son that he was a Jew and that his postwar wife was not Jurek’s mother. I, as a young girl older than they, stopped being a child at age fourteen, and in the ghetto, and even before it was closed off, I took care of the house. I smuggled food, sold Polonia-Luksusowe razor blades on the street and in stores, and bought a red [bicycle] rickshaw, in which my closest relatives used to cart passengers, now and then tossing me coins they had earned.
Then I became a waitress in a restaurant on Sienna Street. Dressed in a black dress with a wide black plastic belt, I sold apple charlottes and cheesecake, and I was allowed to take the leftover “corners” from the baking pan home with me. Once I was walking to work, carrying my belt in my hand, wrapped in paper. It looked like my breakfast, and a barefoot “snatcher” ran up and quickly bit the package, probably thinking he could swallow at least a bite or two before I started hitting him. My father would come home with a loaf of bread, but the food snatchers were quicker than he. His loaf had been bitten, and he was very embarrassed.
At the entrance to our apartment was a small brush with which everyone was supposed to carefully clean his clothes. Typhus, carried by lice, was spreading. My beautiful friend, Ala, lost her hair, and Celinka died, and then her older sister, Maryla, hid in the hearse, paying no heed to the danger of infection because her life was at stake! The cemetery on Okopowa Street was outside the bounds of the ghetto, so the gendarmes counted how many mourners entered, making sure the same number came back out. But even they could not imagine that someone would hide in a hearse. Anyway, they feared typhus like the plague. In fact, they put up posters saying, “Stay away from Jews. Always stay clean. Jews breed lice; lice mean typhus.”
I have mentioned the “Children of the Holocaust” members and the fact that they frequently have a mother complex. I also have one, but different: My beautiful sister, Sabina, committed suicide in the ghetto on her twenty-sixth birthday. She didn’t want to wait for the German “final solution” and sought her own. First, she swallowed two vials of Luminal but was brought back to life. Then she found a simpler way—jumping out of the eighth floor of a building on Chłodna Street.
Her son, Marianek, was two years old then. Unfortunately, he was circumcised. To be sure, this fact shows a curious lack of imagination. The boy was born four weeks before the outbreak of war, just before the Nazi invasion, and was circumcised even though our family was quite strongly assimilated. My sister’s suicide was probably the biggest shock I ever experienced. I decided I had to save the boy, even though I myself had nothing except a false birth certificate and a forged Kennkarte. My mama had light-colored hair, a small nose, and blue eyes. She could have gotten out, she could have lived, if I had been more mature and we had been less subject to the law of the jungle, according to which it was the young and not the old that had to be saved. It’s just that Mama was then forty-eight years old! This is a wound that will never heal. It is a dark spot in the story of my life.
Marianek, Lunia (my middle sister), and I went together to Kopyczyńce, near the eastern frontier. Nearby was the famous Zaleszczyki route by which our dignitaries had escaped in September 1939. It was again quite a colorful scene; there were Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews who were hidden in bunkers. The front passed through several times. For a time the Germans held their ground, then the Soviet army and General Kołpak’s partisans came through. Then the Germans would come back for a few days. Each army would leave behind some trucks loaded with all sorts of goods, and the local population got used to plundering them quickly, despite the bullets and shrapnel whizzing by. We called it hapatnia [loot], and it was very interesting—Portuguese sardines, French wines and cognacs, Italian and French women’s shoes. It was all haphazardly snatched and stuffed into bags, and then swapping would follow. Whoever had one red high- heeled shoe searched for the second one from his neighbor; whoever had too many blankets (because people still had superb military blankets from September 1939) exchanged them for pillows or food.
In September 1939 the entire Polish government evacuated through this route to Romania to escape the Germans.
The retreat of the Germans, who had tried hard to persuade my sister and me to run away with them before the Bolsheviks arrived, was a treat for our eyes. The main road was so crowded with tanks, trucks full of Nazi soldiers, motorcycles, and even horse-drawn carts that they all moved at a snail’s pace. It took them ten hours to get from Kopyczyńce to Tarnopol, which was only twelve kilometers away.
We were liberated in the spring of 1944, a year ahead of central Poland. Our liberation came just in time, because our Marianek had gone for a swim in a clay pit with his playmates, and then we heard them calling out, “Marian, the little Jew, has his balls cut off!” The local Kripo [Kriminal Polizei—Criminal Police] officer, Staszek Kozioł, paid us a visit before the end of the occupation and, in jest, stuck a revolver under my nephew’s pillow. However, he was in love with Janka Nowaczyk, a local beauty, and perhaps this restrained him a bit, or maybe he was just too lazy.
We were intensely affected by the “actions” against Jews, and later, the handing out of their furniture—beds, wardrobes, tables, and still-warm eiderdowns. This is when Marysia, a lovely twenty-year-old girl from Lwów, confided in us. Between sobs, she told us “Aryans” that she had gotten married before the Germans arrived. They shot her husband, and she was left alone with a baby. She somehow found out where a young, childless couple lived and deposited her baby on a straw doormat in front of their door. After liberation she began a frantic search, but those people, anticipating that the mother might show up, had moved away in an unknown direction.
The Soviet authorities and army were generally pleasant and helpful people. Seeing two young girls bringing up a child on their own, they came with their horses and plowed a hectare of land that we had received from the magistrate. Questioned by the NKVD [Soviet secret police], we told them with much emotion about our experiences, that we were Jews from Warsaw and had been waiting for them to save us. They were not moved to tears. They said, “You’re lying! There were too many miracles in your lives.” And there were indeed quite a few miracles in our lives.
I very much wanted to study medicine, but, first of all, I had not even finished the “small” matura (my education had stopped after three years of gymnasium). Second, I didn’t have parents who could support me for seven years. Third, I had to earn a living. I started working as a nurse in a local clinic. I began by applying thousands of dressings to wounded legs. Ukrainian peasants, in order to avoid being drafted into the army, used caustic soda to create self-inflicted wounds and then said they were due to varicose veins.
The “small” matura was an examination taken upon the completion of gymnasium.
Many of the Red Army’s soldiers, as well as General Kołpak’s heroic partisans, suffered from venereal diseases. A Vendispenser was thus organized in the clinic, and Doctor Kolarz became its chief. The nurses from Kopyczyńce did not want to work there at any price, so they pushed me forward. I took smears on glass slides, dyed them with something very blue, and gave them to the doctor, so he could examine the gonococci under a microscope. In the meantime, I conducted so-called social interviews. I asked, “Who infected you?” Soon thereafter good-looking girls or country women would arrive who’d been assured by their partners that it would just be a visit to the dentist or gynecologist. A young Red Army soldier once asked me, “Sister, you’re so young, aren’t you embarrassed to be working in a venereal ward?” I replied, “You are nineteen, and this is the third time you’ve had the clap, so who should be embarrassed?”
Vendispenser was the abbreviation in Russian for venereal disease dispensary. (Author’s note)
Conscription for the Polish army began, and Doctor Kolarz was transferred to the Voenkomat. I was left alone on the field of battle with the gonococci, and it turned out that I had a head for business. With help from Kazimierz Prokosz, a local pharmacist, I got addresses of his friends, pharmacists in Lwów, and repeatedly hitched rides on military trucks to buy streptycyd and other medications. Without hesitation I would write out stamped prescriptions saying “acute gonorrhea”, and everything would be in order. After all, I had previously been a forger of packages of Polonia-Luksusowe razor blades and had mass-produced Aryan documents to bring people into the Warsaw Ghetto—which immediately after the Nazis entered eastern Poland seemed to Jews like the promised land. One forgery more or less didn’t mean much.
Voenkomat was a military commission set up in eastern Poland after its “liberation”, which organized Polish units under the command of the Red Army.
Streptycyd is similar to streptomycin.
Polonia-Luksusowe razor blades, Aryan documents – the razor blades were factory rejects packaged in phony wrappers. Aryan papers were needed to travel in German-occupied Poland.I was treating people! The director of the Health Department sent me on official trips to Lwów about every couple of weeks. She was no fool, however, and would exclaim with admiration, “Miss Krysia, what a wonderful dress you are wearing!” The next day the dress would be in her closet. I also handed out money and various gifts. But like any “doctor”, I also had moments of personal satisfaction. When repatriation to central Poland began, right before I was to board a cattle car (for a trip that would last three weeks), two of my patients appeared. They arrived in a sleigh decorated with beautiful rugs, wearing gray Persian lamb hats, jauntily tipped to the side, and they brought me half a pig and a ten-liter can of alcohol! With this can I arrived in Warsaw. It was my founding capital before I began a normal life, work, and study…