Maria Leszczyńska Ejzen, born in 1933
No one came back
I had time still, during the first six years of my life, to be happy in my little native town of Konin. The entire clan of Leszczyńskis (owners of windmills, and later, flour mills and oil processing plants) and Ejzens were people without a fortune who achieved everything by themselves—doctors, lawyers, historians, and even actors (in Vienna). My father, Majer Juda Ejzen, was a lawyer. I remember a lot from before the war—the death of my Grandfather Ejzen, his Orthodox funeral, and the wedding of my aunt, Mira Leszczyńska, under a chupah. I remember the apartments of my relatives, family celebrations, though we were not religious, Sabbaths at Grandma Rózia’s, and the “magic musical chamber pot” in her apartment. Yes, six happy years!
In 1939, my father, a legionnaire (__), was again mobilized. My mother and I and the Leszczyński family set out for Poddębice to the property of my great-grandmother, and then went on to Warsaw, because we believed that the Germans would not reach there. I remember the dramatic trek by horse-drawn carriage across Poland, bombardments, the siege of Warsaw, first blood, and corpses. After surrender, my father found us, and after a short stay in Konin, already occupied by the Germans, we returned to Warsaw. We had lost everything in Konin, and to return there was impossible.
In November 1940, we moved into the Warsaw Ghetto. My father, who had a handsome Semitic appearance, was not suited for the Aryan side, and besides, in Warsaw, we knew no one and all our relatives were going to the ghetto. We settled in a large apartment with many rooms on Nowolipki Street, very close to the wall.
My father started work somewhere in the ghetto as a laborer in a mill (?). Everyone was supported by him: Grandma Rózia Leszczyńska, Mira with her husband, Mietek Kleiner, the unmarried Brysz girls, Uncle Ickowicz, and Hanka Nasielska with her parents. We ate together but less and less.
Initially, I was content in the ghetto. I attended kindergarten, a kind of preschool where one paid tuition. I was there for the performance of “Good Doctor Oy-it-Hurts” (a great experience). My mother was teaching me to read and write (unsuccessfully). Hunger came, and I became ill with typhus. Grandma Rózia sat by my side and told me of various happenings from the life of our family and fables. I remember it all so well! Then, I got gangrene in my hands and legs, and again things were bad. Even now, I see my grandma, how she tore up the sheet, dipped it in boiling water, and wrapped my fingers… This was the only medicine.
At that time, it was necessary to move from Nowolipki Street, because the apartment was too big, and there were too many people. It was difficult to hide. Mama and I, Father and Grandma Rózia went to the Toebbens block on Leszno Street, the others, wherever they could. I never saw any of them alive again. They dissolved into thin air, departed without a trace.
And, on Leszno Street, Grandma Rózia also left us. She was in a hiding place on the ground floor. Because of a heart condition, she no longer walked, and we were hidden (until my mother got a number from Toebbens) in another hiding place, the basement. Once we returned after a blockade, and the wardrobe of Grandma’s hiding place was undisturbed. Only her comforter was pulled back, and my grandmother was not there. My Papa said, “She went to heaven.” We cried a lot.
…“a number from Toebbens” – I.D. number that gave her the right to work there.
…“after a blockade” – certain streets were blocked off so that the residents could be rounded up for deportation.
On Leszno, there were always alarms. A blockade. One must hide, run to the shelter. Hours without moving, waiting for the Germans to leave the house. Horrible fear about Father, whether he survived.
Once, the Germans burst into the courtyard of the house, and Mama and I had not yet managed to go down to the shelter. Along with a sizable group, we were herded by the Germans into a corner of the courtyard. A volley of shots was fired at us, but neither my mother nor I was wounded. The bullets missed. We fell down under the bodies of others and survived. Another time, the Germans chased us out of the shelter, and I got mixed in with a group being led to Umschlagplatz. I don’t know how it happened, but I found myself alone upstairs at Umschlagplatz. I was standing in excrement up to my ankles when suddenly I heard, “Marychna!” It was my dearest Papa. He carried me away behind him on his back, under his coat. I was holding on to him under his arms. I was so small and thin that nothing could be seen. He had bribed everybody. Sometimes at night,
I hear the cry, “Marychna,” and I run, but nobody is there.
When we returned to Leszno, another tragedy awaited us. The news arrived that Grandma Kalcia, my father’s mother, and his sister, Mańka Lipszyc, had committed suicide in the ghetto of Ostrowiec when they learned that everybody from the Ejzen family had been murdered. My father cried a lot. This was the first and last time that I saw him cry. It was then that he gave me poison (a vial of something) because I was already hiding elsewhere, namely, in a shelter under an antiquarian shop in the same building, with a certain boy named Mietek. There were horrible bats there, and I took it very badly. Then, I again had an ear infection. Afterwards, a decision was reached that it was necessary for Mama and me to cross over to the Aryan side. This was a few days before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Father must have known about it, because he insisted strongly. Walking past the guard who had been bribed, I crossed over to the Aryan side. I had with me a small bag from the Jabłkowski brothers and, in it, a small clay doll from the ghetto, without legs, the only thing that I have from there to this day.
After a short stay on Krucza Street, we transferred to an apartment on Pańska Street. Other than Mama and I, there were six Jews from Radom there, among them a watchmaker who had very many clocks.
The uprising in the ghetto collapsed, and smoke over the ghetto dispersed, but the carousel kept turning. One night, Father arrived at our place. He had made his way from the ghetto through the sewer canals, soiled with excrement. He did not talk at all for many days. After they emerged from the sewers, blackmailers had assaulted them (this group from the ghetto), and a fight ensued. In the apartment on Pańska Street, men were printing some newsletters. Frequently, somebody came for them and rang the bell in a prearranged manner. The wife of one of the Jews from Radom, who was hiding out with a doctor’s family in Błonie, also used to come. She would come with Leszek, the son of this couple, supposedly a member of the Home Army.
…“the carousel kept turning” – a well-known poem by Czesław Miłosz, “Campo Dei Fiore,” describes the ghetto burning while the carousel just outside the ghetto and visible from it, where Polish children are playing, continues to turn.
On May 16, 1944, I was transported, most likely by a representative of Żegota, to a hospital in Pruszków to a Dr. Felicjan Kaczanowski, because I again fell ill with so-called nightblindness. On May 17, Leszek, in the company of Gestapo men, rang the bell of our apartment on Pańska Street. My dear mother was washing her hair in the kitchen, and she was barefoot and in a robe over her naked body. She walked up quietly to the door, and in spite of the prearranged ring, looked through the peephole. Near the door stood a machine gun and Germans. She retreated to my father, and he told her to walk down the back staircase to the floor below and tell them that she was a servant to “those Jews.” This is what she did. My dear mother was an attractive blonde who had Aryan looks.
Żegota was a branch of the Polish underground organized for the purpose of giving assistance to Jews; see Glossary.
She was let into the apartment. After a while, someone came in there and said that one of the Jews had pushed a German and jumped behind him out the window from the fifth floor. Mama then got up and went down below. It was my father. She walked up to the blue-uniformed policeman, Stokowski, who was guarding him and told him to take her also. The policeman replied, “You are crazy,” and pushed her behind a trash bin. When the guards were removed and everybody taken away, he took Mama to his house. How he walked with her, barefoot, in a robe, and he in a uniform, I don’t know. He gave her clothing and money, and Mama wrote a receipt and signed it “Magdalena Leszczyńska from Konin.”
Mama came to join me in Pruszków, and from that time on till the Warsaw Uprising, we went begging in the neighboring villages, particularly in the area of Zielonka and Marki. When the uprising broke out, following Mama’s good counsel, we managed to get through to Warsaw and from there, like all the others, to the camp in Pruszków and to the country to stay with peasants. The Russians liberated us, and one of the soldiers gave my mother a German military overcoat with which we returned to Konin. We returned to Konin to wait, because after all, they will come back… Nobody returned.
A very dramatic period in my life followed which shaped my personality forever, my hypersensitivity, my pride beyond reason, and my distrust of people. And thus, I, the only Jewish girl in the school, became the victim of cruel anti-Semitism. Nobody wanted to sit with me. I sat alone on my bench, and I was called names related to my being Jewish. I had no friends… I was different, it is true – short, dark, serious, without recollections of early youth. I did not know how to swim or ride a bike. I had no grandparents, aunts or uncles, godparents, all those attributes of normality. I read different books. I was even thrown out of the Polish Scouting Association because I could not be “sworn in”. A boy who sympathized with me had his nose broken because he stood up for a Żydówa.
“sworn in” – swearing in was done on a Christian Bible.
Żydówa – a Jewish woman, used pejoratively.
It was then that I decided to run away from home and go to Palestine. Mama had a totally different experience. Prewar friends, service people, and mill workers greeted her very warmly. They brought her our belongings that they had kept hidden, e.g., Master Bunikowski from the mill gave her a chest of silverware hidden by Grandma Rózia, photographs, even paintings and napkins. Someone brought a portrait of my great-grandmother Markowska, an old Jewish woman in a wig, cut out with a knife from its frame by the Germans. He picked it up from the trash and preserved it through the entire occupation period in the so-called Land of the River Warta, “Warthegau.” Unbelievable!
One day, instead of going to school, I went to the railroad station and traveled to Łódź because I had heard that a rabbi there was gathering Jewish orphans for departure. I wandered around for a long time, and then I told him that I was an orphan. Mama found me there and took me back. She later filed papers for Israel but without results. Later, I wrote my memoirs about the ghetto, but this did not help me, did not lighten my heart.
I passed my matriculation in Konin, but as I had promised myself, I went to Warsaw for further studies so as not to stay with “those people from Konin,” although, by then, I had friends there. Here, I finished law studies, gave birth to a daughter, and lived to see a granddaughter.
In 1978, I lost my beloved mother. I still want to mention two events. My mother was at the trial of the policeman named Stokowski who was accused, after the war, of collaboration. She entered the courtroom and wanted to kiss his hand. The court interrupted the trial and declared him innocent. He is no longer alive. The other event is the tragic year 1968, worthy of a separate account by itself. A certain evening, the phone rang. It was my friend, Kazik, from Konin: “Marycha, do you need anything?” This question warmed my heart.
…“the tragic year 1968” – in 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/anti-Semitism
Warsaw, November 1992