Pola Elbinger, born in 1932
I did not believe I would survive to the end of the war
I was born in Nowe Brzesko in a well-to-do home full of love. Many times, memories of my childhood years helped me to endure the difficult years of life. In 1939, when I was seven years old, the Germans invaded Poland. In our little town, persecution of the Jewish population began. Beards of Jews were forcibly yanked out. A decree was issued that Jewish children were not permitted to attend school. I had been in school barely one month. Soon, Jews were removed from the protection of the law. They could be harmed or killed without punishment. We were ordered to wear white armbands with the Star of David. Mama would often hide her armband in her pocket, considering this symbol of discrimination humiliating. It marked Jews as different people, or as the Germans used to say, “quarter people.” Father wore the armband.
The area where Jews could circulate was strictly proscribed. That was the ghetto. Posters with insulting texts were pasted on the walls. One of them, for example, showed a Jewish woman kneading dough, and next to it, lice crawling into the dough. It was awful. Jewish stores were being robbed, and soon, they were liquidated. They pounded at night with rifle butts at apartments to be let in. Germans shot to death those who resisted. Jews were told to vacate the more spacious apartments. We moved into one room converted from a store. It also served as a kitchen. There were five of us – our parents and three children Lusia-Lea, Mundek-Emanuel, and Pola-Priva.
In 1942, the Germans set in motion the final liquidation of the Jewish population. Orders were issued to report to the school square from which Jews were deported by horse-drawn wagons to the vicinity of Miechów. There, people were ordered to take off all their clothes and dig their graves. They were all shot to death.
We escaped one week before the “action.” Mama placed us in various locations in the country in the hope that someone might survive the war. On the day of the deportation, my dear little sister, Lusia, was brought back to town. She shared the fate of all Jews. Mama wanted to save Lusia at any price. She was already dressed, ready to go out, but a priest she knew held Mama back, arguing that she wouldn’t save the child and would perish herself and, after all, she still had two children. Mama was right, without a doubt, that it would be easier for a little girl to die next to her mother. And Lusia was a talented and very pretty child. By age five, she could read, recite poems, and knew her multiplication table up to two hundred…
Later, circumstances so developed that we found ourselves together. We were staying with a peasant who was hiding us in a garret. After a year’s time, he had enough of us. We had not placed all our possessions with him as he had envisioned. He decided to kill us. They were already sharpening their knives, had stopped bringing us food so that we would get weaker (at that time, we were nourishing ourselves with grains of wheat husked from sheaves), and, at the same time, they were keeping an eye on us so we would not escape.
Mama then got the idea of asking their nephew to escort me to my previous hiding place, allegedly as if to relieve them. She was counting on his not agreeing. Indeed, that is what happened. The landlady came out yelling, “Let the Jewess go with the child herself!” (and bring back the promised money, clearly). In this way, Mama and I found ourselves outside. My father and my brother escaped at night, jumping over the fence. We really had nowhere to go. Mama asked some peasants to hide us, for payment, of course. She reassured them, to calm them, that in the event of discovery, we would say that we got into the loft without their knowledge, since it could be entered through the open barn. They agreed. There, we hid, and it never entered anyone’s head that Jews could be hiding in an open barn.
We were hungry, full of lice, and forever in fear that they would come for us. Every murmur, rustle, could signal the end. Mama, risking her life, would go out to secure something to eat. My brother, dressed as a girl, with a scarf over his head, also went out for this purpose.
This lasted until liberation, that is, until the day the Red Army entered in January 1945. I was then twelve years of age. It should be added that Mama was killed three weeks before liberation. The family was shattered. Mama was an elegant woman, talented, very pretty, and devoted to her children without reservation. It was difficult to begin my life anew. An irreparable loss, such as was the death of our mother, made a mark on our entire later existence. We could not be joyful. Moreover, we lost everything we owned. Nothing was returned to us after the war.
After liberation, my father placed us both, my brother and me, in a children’s home. I was there until matriculation. Later, I had nothing to live on, and I had to go to work. When I became ill, my brother helped me. At present, I am on pension.
Kraków, February 1993
The following account of the experiences of Pola Elbinger was transcribed in Kraków in 1946 by Róża Bauminger (Lb. 1580). The original transcript is on file in the Archives of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, sygn. 301/4223.
Before the war, we lived in Nowe Brzesko. We were three siblings. My brother was a year older and my sister three years younger than I. My sister perished; she went with the first deportation to camp to Bełżec.
Bełżec was an extermination camp in eastern Poland.
From the early period of the occupation, what has stayed in my memory is an attack by bandits on our home in 1940. These bandits attacked us at two o’clock in the morning. We yelled for help, but although we lived in the center of the city next to the Polish police, no one came to help us. It was not a robbery attempt, since Mama offered them everything we possessed. Nonetheless, the bandits fired shots, hitting my father in the arm. Afterward, they ran away.
At the beginning, there was no persecution. It was a trifle compared to what came later. They beat up Jews, grabbed them for forced labor, cut off their beards. Since it was relatively calm, Jews from the province of Kraków came to our town. Before the war, approximately two hundred Jews lived in Brzesko, but during the occupation, approximately one thousand. The day before deportation, Mama hid with me at a priest’s.
My little sister was placed in hiding in a village with a widow we knew, a decent woman. Her neighbors threatened her that if she did not take the Jewish child to the deportation square, they would report her to the Gestapo. She became frightened and took the child to Brzesko and left her alone. At that time, Papa and my brother were in the country.
My little sister (she was then six years old) went to certain Poles we knew, who had many of our possessions, with a plea that they accept her at least for the daytime, and she would manage by herself at night. She was in tattered clothes because the other woman had kept all her better clothes and only left her some rags. These people gave her some milk, but they did not want to take her in. She called on other people we knew, but they also refused her. They took her to the deportation square, and she went with a transport.
After this deportation, the priest did not want to shelter us any longer, and I went with Mama to the country to join Father. During the day, we were hidden in an attic, and by night, we slept in the house. At first, we were treated well, but later, the people keeping us became more and more demanding. Our conditions worsened. They gave us less and less to eat and were demanding more and more from us. We had a lot of possessions placed with various people. Mama frequently visited Nowe Brzesko with my brother, dressed as a young girl, to retrieve money.
We could not keep up with the demands of our “protectors,” and there were days when we ate nothing, and once, the peasant attacked my father and beat him up.
The nephew of the peasant was in the Home Army, and in the attic in which we were hiding was a storehouse of weapons. We realized that our hosts wanted to extract from us all that we possessed and then kill us. Once, we overheard a conversation: “It ought to end once and for all; we must sharpen the axes.” We found a hiding place at the home of another peasant who agreed to shelter only Mama and me. But we were unable to get away from the people who had been sheltering us, because they guarded us well. Mama seized upon a ruse. She proposed to the nephew of the peasant that he take me to the priest who allegedly agreed to take me in. The youth objected. “I will not accompany a Jewish brat.” Mama happily declared that she herself would take me over.
Home Army – Polish underground army
The next morning, we left, not to go to the priest, of course, but to the home of the other peasant with whom she had previously made arrangements. My brother accompanied us. For the first time in several months, I went outdoors. I was dazed by the fresh air. Legs no longer used to walking refused to obey. I could not take a step. I broke into tears and stopped in the center of the road. It was already getting light. My brother and my mother pulled me by the arm and finally dragged me to the place.
My brother returned to Father. Every night, he would sneak out, and we would share our meager food. After a certain time, my brother and Father had to flee their temporary hiding place because there, the ground was crumbling under their feet. They joined us. Our hosts accepted two more persons only reluctantly, and one day, Mama went out at dawn to locate a new hiding place for Father and my brother. Two days went by. Mama did not return. My brother went out to look for her and learned that one of the local people had denounced her and delivered her into the hands of the Home Army. It was Christmas Eve of 1944. Our spirits were so broken that we wanted to take our own lives. We did not believe that we would live to see the end of the war. We were already so disheartened that we did not care about liberation. My brother and I wanted to poison ourselves. Papa sustained us in spirit, explaining that we were young, had not experienced life, and must survive to avenge the wrong done to us. At last, we did live to see the end of the war.
“the local people had denounced her”… – the young girl repeated the version of postwar events promoted by the then controlling authorities, aimed at a policy of discrediting the Home Army. As can be seen from the adjoining account of her brother, Emanuel, the children heard only that their mother was taken by a unit of Jędrusie. (Note by transcriber of Pola’s earlier account)