Regina Szymańska, born in 1932
Fear and Dread
For my sister
My maiden name was Regina Wirszubska. I was born in 1932 in Wilno. My mama, Eugenia Dworec-Barysewicz, was a native of Wilno, and Papa, Arnold Wirszubski, was from Grodno. Our family, both on Mama’s and Papa’s sides, was very large. During the war they were all murdered in Wilno and its vicinity. My paternal grandfather was a rabbi in Grodno, while my grandmother was the proprietor of a sawmill and a large public bathhouse. My mama completed studies in Polish language and literature, and Papa received degrees in law and philosophy in Wilno; he was a judge and later an attorney.
Wilno, part of Poland between the world wars, is now Vilnius, Lithuania.
Before the war, my parents, assimilated Jews, lived with me and my three-years-younger sister, Ada, in Wysokie Litewskie. My papa had his law office there. Mama did not work professionally. After the war broke out, we moved to Brześć on the River Bug, to our own house. We were thrown out of there by the Russians, who took everything we possessed. We ended up in Hajnówka. My father worked as an accountant at that time. In 1942, after the German-Soviet war broke out, the Germans marched into Hajnówka and threw us out of there. They rounded up all the Jews from Hajnówka and the surrounding area onto the town square. Women and children were loaded onto trucks. Men had to run behind them. My father, who worked with his mind, was not very fit physically. He was shot. All the men who could not run because of poor physical condition, illness, or old age met the same fate.
…“by the Russians” – the Soviet Union occupied eastern Poland from September 17, 1939, until June 22, 1941.
The Germans took us from Hajnówka to Próżana, where they created a ghetto. We spent nearly a year there. It is difficult for me to describe our time in the ghetto. My sister and I were little girls then. Mama took care of everything. However, I can remember very well when Mama came to us and said, “Listen, your papa is dead.” We then burst into tears, crying terribly. I can also remember that after a few hours we were already playing with other children in the courtyard.
In the Próżana ghetto we lived in a tiny room with some other family. I was ten years old then, and I thus ought to remember these events, but I don’t. They have been erased from my memory. I looked after my sister; Mama managed to get food for us. I don’t know how, but, in any case, we did not go hungry. During this time, Mama tried to establish contact with some of Papa’s clients. Two friends of ours, Mrs. Lidia Lichnowska, who is unfortunately no longer alive, and Mrs. Anna Paszkiewicz, were helping us. When rumors reached us that the Próżana ghetto was about to be liquidated, Mama started fighting to get us out of there. We got Karaite documents. We left the ghetto virtually at the last moment before its liquidation. I don’t know how many people survived of those who were there with us. I also don’t know how we managed to get out of the ghetto in Próżana. It seems to me that Mama bribed the guards. We then traveled two or three nights to Wysokie Litewskie. On the way there we stayed with some peasants recommended to us by Mrs. Lichnowska and Mrs. Paszkiewicz. Both these women had been friends of our family already before the war.
Karaite documents – the Karaites [People of the Scripture] were a Jewish sect emerging in the eighth century in Babylon, which believed in strict adherence to the literal text of the scriptures without any rabbinical interpretation. They later settled in Russia, where they gained equal rights – by claiming that because their origins preceded the rabbinical period, they could not be held responsible for the death of Jesus. The Nazis did not persecute them, somehow accepting the notion that although the Karaites practiced the Jewish religion, their origins were not considered Jewish.
Father had been the only attorney in Wysokie Litewskie. He had his office near the town square, and we also had a large apartment there. In 1939 I had begun to attend the first grade of elementary school in Wysokie. Because my father handled many real estate cases and often won them, he was on friendly terms with many landowners. Mrs. Lidia Lichnowska was the daughter of the mayor of Wysokie. Her family often gave receptions for local notables, which my parents attended. My parents also hosted parties, attended mostly by Poles and only a few Jews. One of these Jews was a doctor at whose home we stayed after our escape from the Próżana ghetto. We lived with him for several weeks until the time when proper papers were prepared for us. He was an internist, his wife, a dentist. They had two children—Jola and eighteen-year-old Zenek, on whom I had a bit of a crush.
Just before the establishment of a ghetto in Wysokie Litewskie (one was created there as well), thanks to the intensified effort by Lidka Lichnowska, we obtained Aryan papers. We could then leave for Narew. It was Lidka Lichnowska, I believe, who brought us the news that a ghetto would be created. Her father, who was the prewar mayor, continued to carry out his duties during the war.
His attitude toward us remained very friendly. None of our acquaintances survived the ghetto in Wysokie Litewskie. The doctors at whose home we hid were murdered, along with their children, about a month after our departure, most probably in the town square.
Mrs. Paszkiewicz, the other lady who was helping us, now lives in Switzerland. She is of Jewish origin. She was then a widow or a divorcée. She had two daughters. One of them, Jaśka, is a doctor in Warsaw; the other, Anka, also lives in Switzerland. I think that people did not treat us any differently as Jews in Wysokie Litewskie, because of our assimilation and the type of life my parents led.
During the war, on two occasions, we managed to escape virtually “from under the knife”. Once, from the ghetto in Próżana, the day before its liquidation, and afterward, from Wysokie just before a ghetto was established there. From Wysokie we found our way first to Bielsko. We stayed with friends of Lidka Lichnowska, physicians. We were there for two or three nights. From there, equipped with letters of recommendation, we went to Narew, where we spent the rest of the occupation. We were helped by a Catholic priest to whom we were referred by Mrs. Lichnowska. It is difficult to say whether the townspeople knew we were Jews.
My mama was very likeable, pleasant, hard-working, and very obliging. We did not go to school. We played practically the whole time with the local children. My sister, in spite of having very dark brown hair, has a snub nose and never looked Jewish. Therefore, she could move around freely. With me, it was different; I have a long nose and chestnut-colored hair. During the entire occupation, Mama kept me hidden and bleached my hair with peroxide. My hair was so damaged by these treatments that I had to wear a white crocheted beret the whole time. Mama told everyone that I had bad sinuses, and that is why I had to be shielded from the sun. I think that people might have suspected the truth; however, they were tolerant.
We lived through the rest of the occupation relatively peacefully. We lived in terrible hovels, at first in a store infested by rats. Mama worked as a scrubwoman in a butcher shop. When she went to work, we stayed by ourselves. We sat on our beds with our legs folded. Mice and rats ran around the store. We were terribly frightened. It was a nightmare.
Later, Mama was offered a tiny room in exchange for her cleaning. We lived there until the end of the occupation. To get that room Mama had to give up a very beautiful wardrobe. I don’t know how we happened to have that wardrobe. She gave the woman who rented us the room all her jewelry and her fur coat, which she had managed to save until then. The landlady was the mother of a priest. She was a very decent old woman, who embraced us warmly. She later arranged for a better job for Mama, cooking dinners for the clerks in the community office. Such a job made it possible to always get something to eat. Around that time, I learned to knit. I made stockings, skirts, berets, and shawls for people. The results were pretty disastrous, but the passion for knitting has stayed with me to this day.
When the war ended, we left Narew for Brześć. Mama hoped that in Brześć we would be able to live in our own house. It was a large, beautiful house, which she had received as a gift from my father on a wedding anniversary. Of course, it turned out that there was no such possibility. Instead, we met our prewar maid in Brześć and moved in with her. I began attending a Russian school. Mama traded in vodka and bread. After a period of time, she applied for repatriation. We came to Łódź, where I finished high school. I began studies in medicine. My sister finished law and left for the [United] States. She now lives in Glasgow with her Scottish husband. I fell in love with my husband, so Mama and I did not go to Israel, despite the fact that she wanted to do so very much.
Today I am a pediatrician. I have a son, Piotr, who is also a doctor. Piotr feels very strongly about being a Jew. He visited Israel. He liked it there very much, but he married a Polish girl—our amiable and dear Dorotka.
Repatriation – after the war, the eastern border of Poland was moved, and Brześć became part of the Soviet Union. Poles living there were given the opportunity to remain and become Soviet citizens or relocate to Poland and be “repatriated”.
My mother was a very brave woman. She saved her two daughters, thanks to her self-sacrifice and the help of good people. She brought them up and educated them. After the war, in Łódź, Mama met Mrs. Helena Nowacka. They went into business together. At first they traveled to Wrocław to trade in abandoned goods; later, when they earned some money, they opened a store in Łódź on Piotrkowska Street. They worked together for several years, until Mrs. Nowacka emigrated to Israel. Afterward, Mama ran the store by herself. When she reached fifty, she became ill. She developed high blood pressure and then had a heart attack. For a while she lived with me, and then she went to my sister’s, to Scotland, where she died and was buried.
As you can see, my account of the war is not particularly long. What else can I say? That there was fear and dread. . . The three of us survived the occupation. After the war we tried to find anyone else from our family, but no one else survived. We were the only ones from the entire family who made it, thanks to our mama, who had fought like a lion for survival.
I never visited Narew after the war, despite the fact that my husband quite frequently encouraged me to go and see the place where I survived the occupation. Somehow I could never pull myself together to do it. I think I experienced too much fear there. That whole period, until the arrival of the Soviets, was a continuous time of fear. There was not a day that we could go through without feeling fear.
Even during the occupation, Mama tried to find Father. It was impossible to find the place where he was shot, together with other Jews. It is certain that he was killed. The Commission to Investigate Nazi Crimes has confirmed this. The Germans killed all the Jews on the way from Hajnówka to Próżana. It was then that my father, the rabbi, the doctor, and more than a dozen other men perished. After the war, Mama tried to arrange a burial for my father. According to the local peasants’ stories, the bodies of the murdered men were taken deep into the Białowieża Forest. She never found out where he was buried. The man who buried my father said that he was still alive at the time. Still alive . . . I don’t know whether he was buried alive or whether he died in the man’s arms. In any case, he asked the man to say Kaddish for him. These were the last words of Father, which reached us.
The Białowieża Forest is a famous forest preserve in eastern Poland, the only place in Europe where bison still roam.
Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead.
I want to dedicate my story to my sister, whom I love very much. May it serve her and her daughters. I think that beside this, it will be useful for my granddaughter, Adusia. Someday, when she grows up, she will learn something about her grandmother.