Liliana Sterling, born in 1935
I Still Have the Hope that Someone Will Find Me
I have put off writing my childhood memoirs for a long time. I have often wondered why I remember so little. I remember almost nothing from the time before the war, and I remember only very incidentally the brutal wartime period up until 1943. However, I have remembered much better the events that occurred after I left the Warsaw Ghetto in February 1943. I was born in Warsaw. My mother’s name was Stefania Sterling, née Blumsztein, and Father was Mieczysław Sterling. Although I managed to locate documents from the camp in Trawniki near Lublin where my parents were most likely shot, I did not find their names on the list of prisoners. Perhaps this was because the first two pages of this list were missing. My own identity was confirmed by archival data at the Jewish Historical Institute, in the file CK2P645—Education Department, Care for Children, Search for Children, Children living with Poles—entries 69 and 105. I found this information in 1994. The woman who was my guardian had submitted it in March 1945. In the summer of 1943 I learned that my parents had been imprisoned in the camp in Trawniki. A woman came to my guardians’ apartment on Towarowa Street and said that because of my father’s poor health, my parents could not both escape from the camp and Mama would not leave her husband alone. She stayed with him so that they might die together. My parents must have loved each other very much, but why did they have to die at such a young age? They were then both about thirty years old.
Trawniki was a forced labor camp near Lublin for Jews and Soviet prisoners of war. Approximately 15,000 Jews were killed there.
My parents and grandparents lived in Warsaw. In the 1930s my maternal grandfather, Mendel Blumsztein, lived at 17 Krucza Street. He was a felczer (there is still someone alive who knew him personally). My grandfather and grandmother (whose name I do not remember) lived with their two younger children, my uncle and my Aunt Mirka. At that time, I probably lived with my parents at 48 Krucza Street. My paternal grandfather, whose name I believe was Aleksander Sterling, most likely worked in an office. I think he lived at 18 Wronia Street and later, at 55 Wilcza Street—an address I do remember. As I have already mentioned, my mother had a brother and a sister. I don’t know what happened to them during the war. Nor do I know what happened to my grandparents, the Blumszteins and the Sterlings. My father most likely did not have any siblings, although the name Róża keeps coming to my mind. I don’t know, however, who she might have been in my family. I thought she was my mama’s sister, but according to someone who worked with Mama and her sister before the war, that was not my aunt’s name.
A felczer was a medical practitioner or surgeon’s assistant, someone with medical training but not a physician.
As I have already mentioned, I remember almost nothing from the prewar period. I must have had a happy childhood. I was surrounded by the love of my parents, my grandparents, and my whole family. From the time of war I remember a gas mask someone put on me, and then I remember hiding places, cellars, and camouflaged hideouts. I can’t describe individual events; everything is somehow intertwined with fear and separation from my loved ones. In some manner I was being coached for leaving the ghetto. Unfortunately, I don’t know when I was being taught this or who taught me. I memorized large fragments of Pan Tadeusz and poems by Tuwim and other writers of children’s books. Of course, I could recite Catholic prayers and sing many Catholic religious songs.
Pan Tadeusz [Mr. Tadeusz] is a very famous epic poem by Adam Mickiewicz.
Julian Tuwim was a well-known Polish poet of Jewish origin.
I recall that I spent the beginning of the war with Grandma Tunia Sterling. Later, I bade her farewell from a distance when she was deported from Umschlagplatz to Treblinka. I don’t know, however, how she ended up in the transport, or when this took place. Grandma Tunia was my beloved granny, but I barely remember her face or figure. I do remember well, however, that she spent a lot of time with me, took care of me, and took me for walks.
I remember little of my parents. Mama was a beautiful woman—shapely, slender, and elegant. Papa was blond and in poor health. I remember almost perfectly my leaving the ghetto. Mama took me out of my hiding place. A few hundred meters from the gate, without saying good-bye, Mama told me to keep on walking and instructed me to profess the Catholic faith for the rest of my life. A guard stood by the gate. He said something to me, but I can’t remember what. When I went through the gate, I saw the woman who was to become my guardian standing a few dozen meters straight ahead. I didn’t know her. When I approached her, she took me by the hand, and we walked to her home on Towarowa Street. I had no bundles with me. Most likely I had no idea what it was all about. Nobody had forewarned me.
The woman who took me in was Mama’s friend from work. Before the war, they both worked for Schiller-Szkolnik, palmists (?). She and her husband lived in one room on Towarowa Street. I had there my own daybed on which I slept. Most of the time I stayed home. I read books that were there. The love of books has remained with me to this day. Books are my best friends. I helped my guardian with her household chores. I tried to be quiet, calm, and grown-up, because already in the ghetto I had ceased to be a child. All the time I was waiting for my mother to come and take me away. However, nothing like this came to pass.
I did not cry during the German air raids and didn’t go down to hide in the cellar. A phobia remains with me to this day—I feel as if I am suffocating when I am in closed spaces without windows or with windows closed. As far as the neighbors were concerned, I was the illegitimate child of my guardian’s husband. I don’t recall anyone making any remarks about my stay with this family. However, one of my guardian’s sisters threatened that if my guardian didn’t meet her demands, she would denounce her to the Germans. I don’t know what these demands were. Luckily, nothing like this happened. During prayers in the courtyard, I prayed fervently and also sang quite well because I remembered Mama’s instructions.
I lived in the apartment on Towarowa until the Warsaw Uprising. In August 1944 the Germans threw us out. They separated the men from the women and children. I ended up in a camp in Pruszków together with my guardian. We were then transferred by cattle car to a camp near Wrocław[then Breslau, Germany]. In the camp, the Germans ordered us to go naked into one of the buildings. My guardian didn’t say anything, but she thought this would be our end. In this building was located a bath. I remember the shower—cold water from a rubber hose held by some woman. During our shower, our clothes were sent to a steam room for delousing. After the shower, the Arbeitsamt sent us to work for a German farmer. This was beyond our strength, however, so we went again to the Arbeitsamt. There we were yelled at and called names. I can’t remember whether they beat us. But in any case, we succeeded. We were sent to work in a munitions plant in Brzeg on the Oder River.
Arbeitsamt – a labour office, a state administration body in Nazi Germany. In occupied Poland the arbeitsamt was mainly responsible for enforcing the compulsory labour imposed on Poles and delivering workers to Germany for forced labour.
My guardian was an energetic person, and I think she knew some German. In the factory she worked as a metalworker’s assistant for twelve hours a day. As one who performed hard labor, she received a food ration card. We had our own room in the home for workers. Most likely it was she who managed to secure it for us. During that time, I did the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundry. To do the shopping, I had to learn German. While out on my shopping rounds, I got to know some Polish prisoners who came in once a week to buy bread in the same store where I also shopped. When my guardian heard from me about the Polish prisoners, she quickly organized a collection of ration cards for them among the workers in the factory. She gave me the cards so I could take them to the prisoners. The prisoners were very moved by our gesture but did not accept these cards. Moreover, they gave me some food. However, I don’t remember what. They also gave me as a souvenir a ring that opened up, with a heart in the center, and on the sides, hands supporting the heart. However, the ring was too large for me, and I lost it. What a shame! We agreed on another meeting, but I never saw them again. My acquaintance with the prisoners was short but wonderful. We met several times in some nook near the bakery.
These were joyful moments for me.
Until the time when the factory was evacuated, we had lived with the hope for a quick end to the war. Winter was approaching, and we had no warm clothing. After all, we had left our home in August, without any luggage. It was already cold. I went around in just my socks. Some people on the street gave me a pair of stockings, but I couldn’t wear them because all the elastics were broken. I also got a coat from someone.
During the evacuation of the factory, probably in January 1945, we deliberately got lost, and in this way, we were not deported deeper into Germany. Fortunately, in the general confusion, this was possible. We headed for Warsaw with a group of Poles. We saw corpses everywhere during this migration. We also encountered various soldiers, who happened not to be fighting at the front just then and wanted to have a good time. My adopted mother had to pay ransom to save herself and me from their “merrymaking”.
Somehow she managed to do it. We had some alcohol from somewhere, and that helped a lot in these situations but not always. If there was a young and beautiful girl in the group, then even alcohol didn’t work. I don’t remember how long we continued like this. When we finally reached Warsaw, my guardian came down with erysipelas. She couldn’t walk and had no medication. Thus she was applying some kind of home remedies. We stopped for a time with her family in Praga. This was a part of Warsaw that had not been destroyed. However, the family could not keep us for very long. The building on Towarowa Street was destroyed. We were without any means of livelihood, hungry, and without clothing. However, neither my adopted mother nor I went begging.
Erysipilas is an acute streptococcus infection of the skin, similar to cellulitis; also called Saint Anthony’s fire.
Soon someone appeared who offered a helping hand. There was a place where people posted notes with information about who was alive and where they could be found. In this way a neighbor from Towarowa Street found us and took us in. We lived with her, her husband, and daughter in one room on Nieborowska Street. The woman was a seamstress. She had a little work, so we helped her with sewing and housekeeping. We lived with these people for several months. We ate what they ate—very modestly. We also had a place to sleep.
This is how we lived until the fall of 1945. Then, my adopted father, who after the Warsaw Uprising had been deported for forced labor to Głogów, returned from his wanderings in Germany. Together we moved to a burned-out apartment on Częstochowska Street and settled there. There were no windows or floors, no kitchen, no doors, not even an entrance. We did not have any pots, furniture, or food. But we did have a will to live. I wanted to see my parents, my dear ones, my real family. To this day I have the hope that I still might meet someone… After the death of my adopted mother, I no longer maintained contact with her family. I did not know anyone from my adopted father’s family.
Głogów is a large town in Silesia ninety kilometers northwest of Wrocław on the Oder River.
I know that I owe my life to my adopted family, my guardians. For their selflessness, struggle, sacrifice, and courage, they were awarded posthumously, through my efforts, the medal of the Righteous Among the Nations of the World. In the difficult moments of my life—and there were, and still are, many of them—I turn to my mother for help. I know she is watching over me.
Today my greatest problem is difficulties with my health. In retrospect I can see that I did not manage my life very well. The difficult financial circumstances under which I lived after the war caused me to go out to work too soon. I finished my university education by working and studying at the same time. I always tried to be strong psychologically.
However, lacking support from my natural family, I was not always able to make the right decisions. The cruelties of war wounded me very severely. Although fifty years have already passed, I feel the effects of the war to this day. I do not understand people who fail to realize what an enormous influence childhood, a child’s world, has on a person’s adult life. When I was a child, I didn’t have dolls or toys. I also didn’t play with my age mates.
Later, there was only work and study. I was employed in an office, which did not fulfill my professional ambitions. Satisfaction from studies and good marks did not bring me happiness, either.
After I received my baptism certificate (I don’t remember when this happened), I became the daughter of my adopted parents. I addressed them officially as my parents, but all the time I hoped that someone from my real family would find me. I turned to the Polish Red Cross for assistance—unfortunately, without any results.