Ludwik Oppenheim, born in 1936
There must be no forgetting
I was born in Warsaw. My father, Antoni Oppenheim, pseudonym Tomasz, was a lawyer, my mother, Franciszka Anna, née Berenbaum, a teacher. Until the outbreak of the war, we lived on a street that does not exist today, Wielka Street (second entrance from Zielna Street), in the vicinity of the present Palace of Culture. Our apartment was destroyed as early as September 1939 during the siege of Warsaw. We then moved in with my father’s parents on Żabia Street. Grandfather, a laryngologist who had served in the army as a doctor during World War I, was already an elderly man in retirement. In the summer of 1940, we were forced to move from this house and relocate to the ghetto area, initially on Chłodna Street. There, in November 1940, Grandfather died of a stroke.
My father began his secret underground activities even before moving to the ghetto. In the ghetto, he formed a cell of the Organization of Polish Socialists which reported to the governmental authorities of the Republic of Poland in London. In the Warsaw area, this organization was directed by Dr. Stanisław Płoski.
Authorities of the Republic of Poland in London – Polish Government evacuated from Poland in September 1939 and re-established in London, continued to direct Polish underground and Polish troops in Allied Armies.
Our next apartment was in the gardener’s house of the Church of Our Most Holy Lady Mary on Leszno Street (Catholic). It was thought to be safe from the conspiratorial point of view, and the organization acted as an intermediary in making the arrangements. This apartment had many hidden nooks and crannies. Among other things, a duplicating machine was located there on which the newsletter “Barricade of Freedom” was reproduced. Clandestine meetings were also held there. The closest coworkers of my father were Jerzy Neuding (whose wife and daughter live in Warsaw) and Stefan Warszawski (Kurowski), who, after the war, became a prosecutor of the Supreme National Tribunal and a judge.
Mama and her colleagues conducted a kindergarten on the grounds of the church garden from spring to fall of 1941, through the kindness of priests. On March 5, 1942, my father was arrested. Because he was arrested outside the home and was in possession of false papers, it took the Gestapo two weeks before they found their way to our home. In the meantime, my mother, with colleagues of Father, cleaned up the apartment. The duplicating machine, the documents, the clandestine papers hidden in books, and the underground newsletters all disappeared.
In one of the letters from my father, smuggled out of Pawiak Prison, he wrote that he was sitting in one cell with the man who had pointed him out on the street. I can’t say whether this man was ever identified. After the Gestapo agents found their way to our apartment, a series of interrogations and searches began. They carried out the books and furniture. Mama, transported for interrogation to Gestapo headquarters on Aleje Szucha, was brought face to face with father.
I remember that one day, when I stayed in bed with a cold, one of the Gestapo men who spoke Polish handed me a piece of candy and asked whether many people came to visit my father and whether I could recognize them. I was already instructed that I was not supposed to say anything, and trying to vigorously clear my throat and speak hoarsely, I said in a whisper that my throat hurt and I could not talk.
In April 1942, the Gestapo took Mama to Pawiak, where she stayed for over a month. At that point in time, being cared for haphazardly, I began to stutter. This speech defect has remained with me to this day.
By April 1942, the period of terror had already begun in the ghetto. There were nighttime executions, roundups, and deportations. During one of those nighttime executions, Jerzy Neuding perished.
The systematic mass deportations began already in May, after Mama’s return. The actions started with children. Mama, who was working in a “shop”, used to take me with her for safety, but in spite of it, I was caught in a roundup twice. Once, Mama managed to get me off a rickshaw transporting children just before it arrived at Umschlagplatz. After this last incident, Mama tried to get me taken out of the ghetto, and at the end of June 1942, I was taken over to the Aryan side. I remember how I walked with a stranger, dazed by street traffic and a different life, more peaceful than in the ghetto. My guide escorted me and, as we strolled along, responded to my questions about street names.
Today, it seems to me that it must have amused him a little to show a frightened child another world. At the home of friends on Bielańska Street, I waited several weeks for Mama. She remained in the ghetto still in hopes of a possible contact with Father in Pawiak, perhaps through smuggled notes.
In this apartment, there was much more freedom. I seldom went out, but I was not hidden, only introduced as a cousin displaced from the territory of the Reich. I missed Mama. She joined me in August 1942. In the ghetto, it was already more and more dangerous. Many relatives and friends were no longer there, having been deported, and contact with my father was already interrupted.
Having Aryan papers, we rented an apartment on Miedziana Street. However, it was not too safe there because in this apartment, there were several families, with children, in the same situation. This aroused the interest of the custodian of the house and his cohorts who laid down financial conditions.
In order to avoid blackmail and throw them off the trail, we moved to Praga, in January 1943, to Ząbkowska Street with Mrs. Natalia Stasiak. Mama pretended to be the cousin of our hostess, while I, on account of, as they claimed, my Semitic appearance and frightened manner, was not shown to people. Except for unusual situations, I did not leave my room deep inside the apartment behind a cupboard with books. I read a lot—The Trilogy, Knights of the Cross, war and adventure books which I came across on the shelves. I was a little skittish, edgy, and frightened. I was always waiting for my father, who never came back from Pawiak. We stayed in this apartment until August 1944.
The Trilogy, Knights of the Cross – well-known historical novels by Henryk Sienkiewicz. The Trilogy includes With Fire and Sword, Deluge, and Pan Wołodyjowski.
After the collapse of the Warsaw Uprising, which lasted only a very short time in Praga, actions began of systematic evacuations and deportations to Germany for work, first men, and then women and children. Therefore, we moved to Stalowa Street to stay with a colleague of Mama who was on Aryan Papers and allegedly had an Aryan husband confined in a camp.
There was a small room there with a kitchen on a low first floor and a window the full width of the room, open because of the summer weather. Opposite it was a single-story house, some kind of workshop, on the roof of which children played. Because of this, since my presence there was not known, I moved around the apartment mainly on all fours and talked in whispers, because the discovery by the children of an unknown age-mate could have been very dangerous. Fortunately, this lasted not much more than a month, until September 1944, when the Red Army entered Praga.
In those virtually final days of the war, we had to wander through the streets all day long because of the combing of apartments in search of men and persons suitable to be deported to Germany. On one of the streets, two drunken Germans took an interest in us and tried to pry me away from Mama, shouting, “Jude!” We managed to run away. It was really just an episode, but I realized its threat only later.
After liberation, Mama, in spite of ailing health, returned to work in a school and worked until 1968 and then retired. In poor health, she died in 1985. My father, who perished in Pawiak, was posthumously awarded the cross of Virtuti Militari (__) for bravery for his secret underground activity.
Virtuti Militari – Cross of Military Valor, the highest Polish decoration for bravery.
After finishing secondary school and studies at the University of Warsaw, I became a researcher. The experiences of those years and of my sad childhood are deeply embedded inside me. When I think back today, from the perspective of the approaching half-century, and I observe how few of my family, loved ones, and friends survived, then I realize what an act of Divine Providence it was that we found ourselves in the group that managed to survive.
How to do justice to the millions who did not survive, to honor their memory and their suffering? With the passage of time, our experiences have become ever more remote. Even for my daughter, it is already history. And perhaps the only thing we can do is to prevent this entire hecatomb of Holocaust blood from being forgotten. It is possible, and maybe, after so many years, there even should be forgiveness and reconciliation, but there can be no forgetting.
Warsaw November 1992