Stella Kolin, née Obremska, born in 1926
From a Camp to the Aryan Side
For Ludka—my sister and savior
There comes a time when one can no longer remain calm and silent. There comes a time when obligations take precedence, even at the cost of reopening old wounds. From time to time I feel that something is tormenting me. It’s an impulse to write about the tragic past. When we, the survivors, are no longer around, our children and grandchildren, wishing to learn something about the Holocaust, will have to plow through documents and memoirs. As long as we last, we have to bear witness to the horrible events that were our lot.
And so, insofar as possible, I have tried to present fragments of what I experienced. Let this be my modest contribution to the holy cause of preserving “the Memory”.
My Unwritten Diary
I come from Warsaw. My parents were owners of the well-known Obremski footwear company. They had six shoe stores and a tannery at 15 Waliców Street. I attended the F. Mirlasowa private school in the Simons Arcade. During the occupation we found ourselves in the Warsaw Ghetto. My mother was caught in a roundup on September 10, 1942, and deported to Treblinka.
Treblinka – death camp fifty miles northeast of Warsaw where most of the Jews of Warsaw were deported. More than 800,000 Jews were killed there.
My father, my two sisters—Ludka and Rózia—and I were captured during the ghetto uprising and deported to the concentration camp in Majdanek. No one from my family, other than myself, survived. I couldn’t write a diary like Anne Frank. There was nothing to write with, or on, in the death camps. I was waging a difficult battle to survive, and that absorbed me completely. Nevertheless, each moment has etched itself in my memory and will haunt me till the end of my days.
Majdanek was a forced labor and death camp located on the edge of Lublin where Jews, Polish and Soviet political prisoners, and Soviet prisoners of war were interned. Close to 250,000 people were killed at Majdanek.
MAJDANEK, MAY 1943
This was a horrible day. I saw my father on the other side of the barbed wire separating the women’s camp from the men’s camp. He seemed so thin and frail. I wanted to embrace him, to be close to him, but we were separated by an electrified double fence.
I wanted to give him what was dearest to me—my daily ration of bread—even though I was so very hungry! I shouted to him, and with all my might, I threw my piece of bread in his direction. But I was too weak. The bread landed short of its goal and bounced off the wires, setting off a piercing alarm that could be heard throughout the entire camp. Almost immediately I was surrounded by guards. They dragged me in front of Hermine Braunsteiner, the worst of the camp’s beasts. She sentenced me to twenty-five lashes and looked on as one of the guards carried out the punishment with a bullwhip. I fainted after the ninth stroke. I am lying on my bunk half-dead and bleeding. I am scared that if I don’t go to work tomorrow, they will send me to the gas chamber.
SKARŻYSKO-KAMIENNA, WERK [WORKSHOP] C, SEPTEMBER 1943
I still cannot comprehend what happened and how my sister Ludka managed to do it. After a thorough medical examination, she was slated for a transport out of Majdanek. She had been declared healthy and able to work. I, however, had been rejected. Ludka exchanged our clothes—and our sewn-on numbers. When her number was called, she pushed me to the front of the ranks. I could hardly walk after my beating, but my friends helped me get to the train. Miraculously, I was out of danger.
There in Skarżysko, I recuperated a bit. What bothered me the most was the news from people who arrived with the next transport from Majdanek. They told me that Ludka, still healthy and strong, was taken somewhere. She was wearing my name and number. She was not able to convince the SS men that she had not yet gone through the selection. Only God knows whether we will ever see each other again.
Skarżysko – Skarżysko-Kamienna was a forced labor camp located between Radom and Kielce, where 23,000 Jews lost their lives.
SKARŻYSKO-KAMIENNA, WERK C, AUGUST 1944
The Russians must already be close. We could hear the artillery fire at night. The Germans have become very nervous. There are rumors that they want to kill us off. They said that they would take us to Germany, but nobody believes them. I heard that some of the Kapos have escaped. I don’t know what to do! If they ran away, it must be that we are about to be killed. I have to escape, but how? We are surrounded by a heavily-guarded, two-and-a-half-meters-high electrified double barbed-wire fence. And where would I go without money or friends on the other side? I mustered enough courage to make my way through the fence. It happened in the dead of night. There was a hole in one part of the fence. Without thinking, I squeezed through to the other side of the barbed wire and in no time reached the woods. My flesh was torn all over from the barbs.
Kapo – prisoner who received special privileges for supervising (often cruelly) other prisoners..
…“my way through the fence” – the day before evacuation the SS commander of the camp, bribed by Jewish camp functionaries, promised that he would remove the guards and let them escape. As it turned out, it was a trap. Armed guards waited for the escapees, most of whom were shot. A few were able to escape. Many prisoners knew about the planned escape. (Author’s note)
Right away I chanced on the bodies of two men lying in the woods. One was already dead, but the other, whom I knew, was still alive. His name was Jurek. Suddenly, I heard German voices close by. I lay down on the ground next to Jurek, pretending to be dead. The Germans approached and kicked the prostrate bodies with their boots. Neither Jurek nor I gave any sign of life. The SS men thought we were dead and went on.
I lay in this way for a long while until I heard shooting, shouting, and the roar of vehicles from the direction of the camp. The evacuation had begun. Suddenly, I felt shudders going through Jurek’s body—the agony of death. The sight of a man dying was horrible. Meanwhile, the forest lived its own life. Birds began singing, welcoming the new day.
I was completely covered with my own and Jurek’s blood. Walking through the forest, I tried to clean myself up. I got to some kind of road. I met two small girls who showed me the way to the nearest train station. In the lavatory there, I found a cracked mirror and a newspaper. I wiped the remaining blood from my face and combed my hair with my fingers. I boarded the first train and immediately locked myself in the lavatory. From time to time people knocked, but after a while, they went someplace else. I couldn’t get out, because not having a ticket, I was afraid of the conductor.
SAINT MAGDALENE’S CONVENT, CZĘSTOCHOWA, AUGUST 1944
When the train stopped in a larger station, after several hours, I left my hiding place and got out. The station sign told me I was in Częstochowa. On the next platform there was a train surrounded by guards and filled with people in civilian clothes. They must have been prisoners taken during the Warsaw Uprising—which had broken out some weeks before—on their way to concentration camps. Not far from me stood a nun talking to a young girl. From bits of their conversation, I realized that the girl had escaped from the transport and that the nun wanted to help her. After a while they both left the station.
…“prisoners taken during the Warsaw Uprising” – after the collapse of the Warsaw Uprising, residents of Warsaw were forcibly removed from the city to the countryside or to concentration camps. The Warsaw Uprising broke out against the Germans on 1 August 1944, just as the Red Army was approaching Warsaw. The Red Army, however, delayed its arrival in Warsaw, and the Germans were able to suppress the uprising and destroy the city.
The train started slowly to move. I wanted to avoid an encounter with a patrol walking by, so I started walking out in the direction of the city. I noticed another nun sitting on a bench, looking as if she were waiting for someone. “I am in trouble, Sister,” I whispered to her. “Confess everything to Jesus, and He will help you,” was her reply. I told her I had just escaped from the transport and that I was afraid of the Germans.
The nun took me by the arm and led me toward a nearby convent. There I found myself face-to-face with the mother superior. Right off, she asked, “You’re from the Warsaw Uprising? Tell me what’s happening there.” Luckily, while still in Skarżysko, I had heard about the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. But I also had memories of the earlier uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, in April 1943, which I had witnessed personally. So I told her about burning buildings, people jumping from windows to escape the flames, and how the Germans dragged people out of their bunkers and shot them.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was an uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto by the small population remaining after the deportation of some 400,000 Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp. Organized by the Jewish Fighting Organization (ŻOB), it began on April 19, 1943, and continued until the burning of the ghetto in mid-May.
Mother Superior was clearly shaken. She gave me a rosary and announced that I could stay in the cloister without fear and work for my upkeep. I was fed and given clothing.
Then, misery me, I made a terrible mistake! Did I have to give in to an impulse to confess the truth? In the convent I felt safe, especially after I became familiar with a prayer book and learned the “Hail Mary” and other daily prayers by heart. The days passed peacefully, and I felt so good in their caring, protective hands. Because of my loneliness and the sense of decency instilled in me, I felt an irrepressible urge to get out of this situation. I wanted to find consolation from the hands of those who had the calling to do this, even though I was only a Jewish soul, not one of them. This was a kind of test for me and for the bonds of friendship that had grown between me and those who were helping me. I felt that I was deceiving them by hiding the truth. Looking at the Virgin Mary’s radiant smile on a painting in the chapel, I really believed that it was also intended for me.
How foolish I was! Unfortunately! One day, during confession, I told the priest that what I wanted to confess was a very serious matter. “Jesus will listen to you, my child,” he answered, adding, “Whatever it is, it’s a matter between you and me and God.”
“Father, I am a Jew,” I confessed as quickly as I could. Then I told him about everything that had happened to me during the recent months. The priest was clearly troubled. He told me not to worry but I should tell Mother Superior about everything.
A few days passed. I didn’t find enough courage to go to confession again. But during a chance meeting, the priest asked me whether I had told everything to Mother Superior. I told him that I had not as yet. The next day, she summoned me into her private sanctuary. She told me that I could no longer be together with the others under her care. I had to move to a dreary room next to the laundry and do the wash from then on. There was no radiant smile on her face. She spoke in a stern tone and no longer reminded me of the Virgin Mother in the painting.
The days that followed were a nightmare. My hands were chapped and covered with blisters from the harsh gray laundry soap. I washed the linens by hand from morning till night. I felt that I could no longer bear the strain. I complained to Mother Superior, to which she replied, “My child, the harsher one’s fate on earth, the greater the reward awaiting in heaven.”
REFUGEE CENTER, KRAKÓW, OCTOBER 1944
I couldn’t stand it any longer. One day, after delivering the washed linens to town, I hid and ran away. After many mishaps, I made my way to Kraków. I ended up in a refugee center, not knowing what the next day might bring. How much I regretted what I had done! I’ll never share my secret with anyone again. In Kraków I experienced an awful scene. I was working as an attendant in a hospital at the time. One day, on my way to work, I chanced upon a roundup. I was herded in together with the others, taken to some kind of school, which was already filled with many people. There was a rumor that a German had been killed and we had been arrested in retribution as hostages. We sat in a large hall for a long time. More and more people were being brought in. We were watched by Germans and by blue-uniformed [Polish] police.
After a while, I felt the need to use the toilet. I approached a policeman, together with some older woman, and we asked him to let us out. At first he didn’t want to, but I finally managed to convince him, and he let us out, first me—“for five minutes”—saying he’d let my mother (so he thought) out after my return. Looking for the toilet according to the policeman’s directions, I ran to the basement and opened the door to some closet used for storing buckets and brooms, which had a small window. There was also a ladder there. Not thinking too long, I hid behind the ladder and covered myself with rags. I stood there for some time.
Suddenly, I heard the tromping of army boots and horrible screaming. I abandoned my hideout and put the ladder to the window to see what was going on. I saw the courtyard where the Germans were herding all the prisoners. Suddenly, I heard machine guns. My heart almost stopped beating. I was so scared I trembled all over. All I saw through the little window were people being shot. Blood all over. I was paralyzed. I could have been among them.
After a while, which seemed like an eternity, some men arrived. think that they were prisoners picking up the bodies and placing them on trucks. I probably fainted then, because when I opened my eyes, it was dark and quiet outside. I slowly came out of my hiding place, crying softly. I was so tired, still not believing what I had seen, thanking God for my not being one of the executed.
Then I had a stroke of luck. Pretending to be a Christian Pole, I got a job as a maid at the home of a German doctor. He and his wife were nice people. The doctor even took care of me when I fell ill. Once again I felt the need to tell these people who I was, but I held my tongue; I have learned something already!
LEIPZIG, APRIL 1945
The year 1945 was approaching, and the Russians were coming closer. My German employers were evacuated by a military transport to Dresden, and I was forced to go with them. This was a time when heavy Allied bombing was turning the city into an inferno. Planes were systematically dropping bombs on one section of the city after another. In the general confusion, I slipped away from the doctor’s family. I saw that the low- flying airplanes were bombing clusters of buildings, passing over open spaces. Instinctively, I ran to a large park and hid among the trees. I also thought that if I had to die, I wouldn’t want to be buried in the same soil with the Germans; I’d rather be there among the trees!
The heaviest air raid of World War II finally ended. I was once again alone, in the middle of the ruins of Dresden. I couldn’t pass for a German, and I couldn’t stay by myself in a foreign city for long. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Suddenly I saw a column of Polish-speaking people. I joined them. I knew that as long as no one recognized me as a Jew, I had a chance of surviving.
The group of about two hundred men and women was taken to Leipzig and put in an underground bunker. Suddenly, soldiers in unfamiliar uniforms burst into the bunker. One of them pushed me toward the exit with all his might. “Schnell, schnell! [Quick! Quick!] Out!” he yelled. Other soldiers, using gestures and shouting, were also trying to empty out the place as fast as possible. Literally, a moment after the bunker was emptied, there was a powerful blast that threw us to the ground. It turned out that the Germans had placed time bombs in the bunker with the intent of blowing it up along with the people inside. Our liberators, the Americans, found out about this at the last minute and managed to save everyone. The soldier who led me out gave me a piece of bread. To me, he seemed like God himself. What else could I have asked of the Almighty had he appeared before me? He saved me from certain death, gave me bread, and announced that the war and our misfortunes had come to an end! For the first time in many years I didn’t feel hunger. I was free!
After a period of recuperation, I returned to Poland. In Wałbrzych, I met my husband, Michał Kozłowski (now Kolin), who survived the war in the USSR and fought the Germans in the ranks of the First Polish Army. We were married in 1946. In 1947 I gave birth to our son, Ira. In 1950 we came to the United States. Our daughter, Marlene, was born in 1955. We now have five grandchildren—Brian and Laurie, the children of Ira, as well as Matthew, Andrew, and Zachary, the sons of Marlene. We all live in New York.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to meet Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, the bestial SS woman from Majdanek, during hearings on her deportation from the United States. Thanks to testimony from me and others, she was deported to Germany, where she was tried and convicted of crimes against humanity.
The First Polish Army was a Soviet-controlled Polish army formed in the Soviet Union in 1944 under the command of Polish General Zygmunt Berling.
Postscript by Jakub Gutenbaum
In 1993 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Al Gore, the U.S. vice president, came to Poland. During his meeting with the Jewish community in the Jewish Historical Institute, to which I had been invited as the representative of the Association of Children of the Holocaust, I noticed a woman whose face seemed familiar. After a short exchange of words, we fell into each other’s arms. It was Stella, with whom I had worked in the same factory room for more than a year at the forced labor camp for Jews in Skarżysko-Kamienna, in the so-called Werk C. We had arrived in Skarżysko from the Majdanek concentration camp, to which we had been deported from the Warsaw Ghetto during the uprising in April 1943. We had parted more than fifty years before; she had escaped from the camp the day before it was evacuated and now lives in New York, while I was taken to the concentration camp in Buchenwald and now live in Warsaw. We knew nothing about each other. Neither of us knew that the other had survived the war and the Holocaust.
Buchenwald, located five miles north of Weimar, was one of the largest concentration camps in Germany. More than 40,000 prisoners perished there.
I asked about Adela with whom Stella was friendly. It turned out that she was no longer alive, having recently died of cancer. Adela was the only person from Werk C whom I had known from Warsaw. She was an orphan, adopted before the war by two teachers, a married couple, friends of my parents. She was goodness incarnate. Many times she gave courage to me and others in difficult moments. Optimism—genuine or pretended—was an exceedingly rare commodity in those cruel times. The unexpected meeting with Stella reminded me of an event involving her and Adela, which in my consciousness is encoded under the name “Sugar Cube”.
In Skarżysko lice were eating us alive. Exhausted, starved prisoners were being decimated by a typhus epidemic. In March 1944 I also came down with it. I got a high fever and not being able to go to work had to report to the doctor. In the infirmary barracks, triple-tiered bunks stood crowded together. The sick were lying two to a bunk. It was dark, crowded, and the stench was unbearable. The only place to be found was on the top tier next to a man already lying there. It did not take long to figure out that my neighbor had diarrhea and was defecating under himself. I knew that at Werk C one did not survive in this condition. And indeed, the next day, my neighbor died. With great effort, I threw his excrement-soiled blanket to the floor.
Several days in a row I lay ill with high fever on bare planks, in tattered clothes, in stinking barracks, to which it required heroic self-discipline just to enter. Suddenly, one day, I couldn’t believe my own eyes; above me I saw the smiling faces of Adela and Stella. I don’t know if anything like this had ever happened in the entire history of this stinking place of death; a sick person had visitors! But this was not the end. Adela gave me a tiny package. I unwrapped the paper, and I saw a sugar cube! I had not had such a delicacy in my mouth for more than four years. And here, at the very bottom of this camp inferno, I saw a real piece of sugar and two good souls above me! I don’t know how they got it, how many sacrifices it had cost them. I only know that never in my life had I gotten such a marvelous gift. I’d say even more, that this visit by Adela and Stella and that piece of sugar saved my life!