Robert Kulka, born in 1931
With a Czechoslovak passport
I was born in Katowice into a Jewish family originating from Moravia. We practiced the main traditions of the Mosaic religion but, at the same time, were to a large degree assimilated. My parents, Leon and Gizela, née Huppert, held Czech citizenship. They used the passports of this country until the 1950s and, thus, also during World War II. This, without a doubt, contributed to the survival of our five-person family. We were also helped in this by our proficiency in the German language, acquired by my parents from schools under the Austrian partition (__) and passed on to us in our home life. It should be noted that in contrast to prewar Polish passports, those passports had no entry for “religious denomination.”
Moravia was then a province in Czechoslovakia and is now part of the Czech Republic.
…“under the Austrian partition” – southeastern Poland was annexed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1772 (some portions were annexed in 1794) to 1918.
At the moment of the outbreak of World War II, my parents, who were married in 1923 in Bielsko, owned an optical store on the main street of that city, and I, at the time, had completed the first grade of the Jewish elementary school, with Polish as the language of instruction.
Our first encounter with the cruelty of the Second World War was connected with an unsuccessful attempt by our family to escape toward the east before the invader. It ended in Jarosław, where Hitler’s army caught up with us. From that moment on, our five-and-a-half-year nightmare began. Hiding was made difficult, among other reasons, by the fact that all the male members of our family were circumcised.
After our return, in October 1939, from the so-called escape (three full days in cattle cars and, at every station, ominous shouts: “Sind Juden da? Juden raus!” (Are their Jews there? Jews Out!), we found our store taken over by a Treuhänder and our rented apartment in Biała sealed. (At that time, there were two separate municipalities which today make up the city of Bielsko-Biała.) During the course of a stay of several weeks at my grandparents’ in Bielsko, the Germans managed to deport my brother, Jan (formerly Hans), seven years older than I, toward the eastern border with a transport of Jews. From there, under fire from three sides – Ukrainian, German, and Soviet – he, like many others, reached Lwów, which was occupied by the Soviet Army.
In this situation, we crossed over through the “green border” from the territories already annexed to the Reich to Kraków, i.e., to the so-called General Government. In the spring of 1940, my brother succeeded in joining us in Kraków. At the beginning of 1941, we left there, at which time our family separated. My father and brother went to Warsaw, and only from that moment on, began the official disguising of our Jewish origins. However, my mother and I and my sister, Irena (formerly Erika), five years older than I, were still known as Jews in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. At the beginning of 1942, we were reunited in Warsaw where, until
“green border” – border out in the countryside where it was easier to cross illegally to another country.
1944, I attended the fifth and sixth grades of a Polish public elementary school, clearly no longer revealing my origins. We lived, in succession, at 7 Bagatela Street near Unia Lubelska Square, at 57 Chmielna Street (today the grounds of the Palace of Culture), and at 5 Parkowa Street (this was employee housing for the Optical Works in the Grochów district). I attended school on this same Bagatela Street, only one floor lower.
The way we conducted ourselves helped save us. For example, we traveled on streetcars nur für Deutsche (only for Germans), we frequented a German movie house, as well as the Polish book-lending library on Bagatela Street at number 5 (?). My sister behaved similarly when towards the end of 1943 (or perhaps in late fall), two teenage boys accosted her on the street, claiming she was Jewish. Without much thought, she walked up to the blue-uniformed police, judging that, in this manner, she could settle the matter. He took the entire threesome to the police station on Szpitalna Street across from the Wedel store. My father retrieved her from there after Mr. Jerzy (?) Zalewski vouched for her. He was a confectioner from the Lublin area who ran a coffee house near the Prudential (now Hotel Warszawa), where my father was a regular patron.
During our stay in Warsaw, we were very close to the Pawłowski family, living on Dobra Street, who probably suspected our origins. It was they who helped an optometrist by the name of Tran get out of the ghetto (previously, he had a store on Kredytowa Street) and even sheltered him at their home, facilitating his departure abroad later.
In November 1943, my father started working in the Optical Works and my brother, as a salesman in a German bookstore on Krakowskie Przedmieście (together with Zygmunt Broniarek). As a thirteen-year-old boy, I lived through the entire Warsaw Uprising of 1944 in the center of the city (40 Polna Street) at the home of strangers, since the outbreak found me away from home, and I could no longer return there. During the uprising, in order to supplement our food supplies, meager because of the situation, I helped with the operation of a Central Assistance Council canteen. I carried water in two pails from very distant locations where it was still available, walking through basements with low ceilings and dugout passageways. In return, I received a bowl of soup and a cup of sweetened coffee.
After deportation to the camp in Pruszków on October 2, 1944, that very day, I managed to escape and rejoin my family in neighboring Piastów. My family, evicted by the Germans from their apartment at 5 Parkowa Street in the middle of August, wandered around, until the moment of our encounter, in the suburbs of Warsaw, in order to search for me, among other reasons. After a few weeks in Piastów, we spent the last weeks of the war in Łódź, where liberation found us.
In spite of the many intentional or forced separations, we owe the survival of our entire family through World War II, to a large degree, to the prudence of my father, as well as to our remaining cool in situations threatening extreme consequences, to which we were exposed on many occasions, individually or all together. During the war years, we encountered both blackmail and people of great nobility and courage.
After the war, I finished successively high school (1948), lyceum of chemical dyeing (Industrial School, 1951), evening engineering studies specializing in textiles (1956), and postgraduate studies of economics and materials science (1966, Kraków).
In 1958, I married a Catholic woman. We have two daughters who turned out very well (1960 and 1962), two equally wonderful grandsons (one from each, 1987 and 1989).
Since 1945, my entire life has again been connected to Bielsko-Biała where I was employed for thirty-two years in the state textile industry. Since 1983, because of health reasons, I have been an early retiree, continuing work in my profession on a part-time basis.
Bielsko-Biała, November 24,1992