Wiktoria Śliwowska, born in 1931
Home life in the Warsaw ghetto
I was eight years old when the war broke out and nine when I found myself behind the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto. My parents had no substantial supplies, neither food nor cash. They lived modestly. Mother, Sara, née Fryszman (according to family accounts, she was related to the well- known Hebrew writer, David Frischman), was an assistant to Professor Antoni Bolesław Dobrowolski at the Free Polish University. Father, Józef Łaski, operated a small antiquarian business. He had regular customers from within the country and abroad who purchased books from him.
Income from this home-operated antiquarian business supplemented our meager family budget. All the walls of our three-room apartment at 5/7 Elektoralna Street were stacked from top to bottom with shelves of books. In the small room, books lay also on the floor in huge piles. Amid those piles, next to a small desk with a typewriter, stood my little bed. I would wake up in the morning having in front of my eyes, on all sides, shelves with books and books lying on the floor, one on top of the other…
Fortunately, our apartment happened to be located within the confines of the so-called small ghetto, and therefore, we did not have to move anywhere. On the contrary, the entire floor in the annex was taken over by our family. Relatives of Mother arrived from Łódź and occupied a room in our apartment (Aunt Ela and Uncle Mitek Kryszek) as well as the two rooms and a kitchen next to us abandoned by our neighbors who escaped across the River Bug (Uncle Ignacy Fryszman with his wife and little daughter, Anka). On the entresol level lived my father’s sister, Teofila, called Tetka, with her son, Jerzyk. My mother managed the common family household, but Tetka was the master chef in the kitchen and conjured up special dishes from whatever could be found. I remember czernina and horse meat as the greatest of delicacies.
…“across the River Bug” – they escaped to the Soviet-occupied part of Poland.
Czernina – soup made from animal blood.
We spent two winters on Elektoralna Street, 1939–40 and 1940–41, as the years of occupation were counted, above all, by wartime winters. The first of them was especially difficult. Lacking fuel, we slept in our socks and caps. Tetka exchanged her fur coat for a ton of coal, which she and Father carried up to the fourth floor. It was too risky to keep such a treasure in the cellar! Wooden boards that separated a garret from the apartment on the entresol level also went for fuel. I still remember frostbitten aching hands and feet, continuously smeared with black ichthammol ointment which soiled the bed linen despite our socks and gloves. Then, there came as well nagging sores and boils on the neck and legs, which were treated, in turn, by applying aloe leaves growing in pots in the window.
Otherwise, everything else for us children returned to normal very quickly. It was something incredible. To this day, I am unable to understand it completely, but that is how it was. In our house, very quickly, a real school was formed, groups of pupils in several shifts, and, in addition, individual lessons given by my mother. This school, which existed for two years on Elektoralna Street and then a third year on Chłodna Street, formed the basis of our life during the occupation.
“This school”… – compare to the account of Hanna Mesz, who attended this school along with Janina Bauman and Zofia Morgenstern. (Author’s note).
It also provided a precise rhythm in our everyday life. Other activities were subordinated to it. In the same stairwell, half a floor lower, Miss Stefania Wortman and her mother conducted a preschool (my cousin, Jerzyk, attended it daily) and a book-lending operation. We also used to visit Miss Stefa to listen to her wonderful narrations of fairy tales.
Our day, the children’s, was unusually intensively filled. Everybody got up early. Washing, combing (making braids and plaiting into them ribbons––pressed daily!––matching the color of our dresses or blouses) took a lot of time. Part of the ritual was combing out the hair with a dense comb. (The battle against insects presented a never-ending object of concern in our home, and, until July 1942, I don’t remember any invasion of vermin in our apartment.)
In the meantime, Father would light a fire in the stove. It was his principal winter task––not at all an easy one. Lighting and maintaining the fire––so that it would smolder the longest, giving the greatest warmth with a minimal quantity of coal––was no mean trick. Father’s other duty was waxing and shining the floors. Stoking the fire, polishing the floors, he would constantly hum, murmuring Russian romantic tunes and songs from Qui Pro Quo.
Qui Pro Quo – variety show theater popular in Warsaw before the war.
The apartment on Elektoralna Street will always be associated for me with this morning humming of Father at his various daily tasks. It had a calming influence on everything, reverberating unchanged even during the most difficult moments. Daily polishing of the floor with a heavy iron brush with a long handle, these days no longer in use, but then in every “respectable” home, presented an added attraction for us, because we would squat on it and ride it, or rather get a ride on it through the entire room.
To the very end of July 1942, the floors in our apartment sparkled as during the best prewar times––and not only the floors. I don’t know how they managed to get soap, because after all, there was probably no soap powder at all. But something was always soaking in wash basins; in the kitchen, there was nonstop washing and ironing (with a heated flatiron) and cleaning. Tetka, after every meal, polished the pots to make them shine. When told that she was unnecessarily wasting effort, she responded that so long as the pots were shining, so long as we were eating on china and a freshly pressed tablecloth, they had not managed to oppress and demean us.
Those tablecloths and dinnerware, on which were eaten “spit” soup from oats and other such courses, that was the challenge issued and the family banner raised in response to the degradation of the occupation. We, the children, did not ourselves realize how much effort it took. We felt only that we were living in a normal household, that here it was safe and warm, even if in the morning, the water froze in the pail. The school must have been well organized, because there was no shortage of pupils to the very end. There were old textbooks, respected, covered, just like books for reading. Reading was one of my greatest pleasures, other than paper cutting and molding with clay. We kept busy with this during handiwork classes and outside of them. The whole family was teaching––Mama, Aunt Ela (a teacher by profession), Cousin Irka Perelmuter, Tetka (nature study and needlework), and Father (geography). We were occupied all the time with darning, embroidery, hemming, drawing, and many other activities. Old socks were unraveled into threads; clothing was altered. Tetka knitted for us and for income. It was a supplement to her earnings from teaching. In a photo made in 1941 on Elektoralna Street, the three of us were immortalized in those most beautiful little sweaters. Looking at this photo, it is hard to believe that it portrays residents of the “closed quarter.”
“spit” soup – the soup was made from unthreshed grain and the inedible husks had to be spit out.
We even had our own puppet show (from cardboard and colored tissue paper), based on the texts from fables (among others, About Kasia Who Lost Her Little Geese)––the main fall-winter attraction. In June, we would have a festive conclusion of the school year and the handing out of certificates with grades and a performance for parents and children. I remember one of them based on motifs from Little People and Little Orphan Marysia by Maria Konopnicka. We staged excerpts; the costumes were magnificent. I played a little rat, and when asked why I stole grain from poor people, I would respond with a prolonged, “Hun-ger, hun-ger,” with such emotion and conviction as could resound only in secret classes in the Warsaw Ghetto… Spectators had tears in their eyes.
In addition to the conclusion of the school year, birthdays were observed with due ceremony. Congratulatory notes were drawn, good wishes exchanged, and for the children, parties even arranged (some kind of delicacies with saccharine, a water-based pudding which we called ice cream, and others.) These were so exceptional that they have sunk into my memory even more than any painful feelings of undernourishment. When I recall all of this today, I am conscious of how much wisdom and fortitude were needed to organize domestic life in the heart of the Nazi occupation. After the end of the school year, we were also not left with out activities.
I do not know by what means my parents leased a sliver of a “garden” at the rear of the Church of St. Augustine. For us, sickly greenery and flimsy little bushes substituted for the country and seemed like true paradise. We used to go there with a ball, a jump rope, some kind of small shovels, and other playthings. I suspect that looking after the children was not only motivated by a desire to normalize our stay in the ghetto but also provided a certain material support. We loved enormously these daily departures from our house to the “garden,” although the route itself through the streets of the ghetto was a nightmare. Other than that, we seldom left 5/7 Elektoralna Street. Our life flowed along inside Apartment No. 64 and in the little courtyard, which was, as it always seems in childhood, enormous.
Stepping out of the courtyard, it was difficult not to notice what was happening. We passed bodies lying on the sidewalks covered with paper. You had to take care not to stumble over them. We passed children begging, skeletons in rags, children sitting against the walls of houses and plaintively singing ghetto songs. They resound in my ears to this day. “Coupons, coupons, I don’t want to give up my coupons…” Most of the time, I walked with my eyes spasmodically clenched, clutching tightly to Mama’s hand so as not to trip. But it was not always possible to move with closed eyes and walk around precisely that which one would not wish to notice…
We used to bring our “treasures” from the little “garden” to the house—caterpillars on leaves which nourished them and spider eggs. Then, in a box or a jar with a lid with holes poked through, these caterpillars grew. They changed into cocoons and then would hatch into moths or butterflies. These breedings, just like magical beans on gauze shooting out roots into water, were object lessons in natural science, and they provided us with moments of true childhood happiness.
And then one time, when we were returning from the little “garden,” a hungry ragamuffin pulled the paper bag with the caterpillars out of my hand, apparently counting on finding something to eat inside it. I have remembered him all my life. Just like the crowd of paupers on Krochmalna Street, clamoring, stretching out their hands, grabbing at our coattails when we went to take something to the wife of Father’s brother, Dudek, who had fled east. It was then that I saw a real ghetto apartment, exuding poverty, filth, terrible disorder, and despair. In general, care was taken that we should avoid having such contacts, protecting our spirits and our bodies (against typhus).
Mama wrote about this in a letter, miraculously preserved, to her friend “outside the walls.” “The children do not go outside the boundaries of the courtyard, but we have planted lupine, night-scented stock, reseda (mignonette), and a few vegetables. It is beginning to become green here and will be fragrant. We have lots of sun both in the apartment and in the courtyard. We avoid the streets; the poverty which overflows onto the streets is terrible, and, of course, one must avoid crowds because of the spread of typhus.” She also refers to her master professor, A.B.D., “If my lesson goes well, if I think up a good pedagogical methodological idea, if I know how to approach pupils, if in my work, there is something that exceeds the average, I know to whom I am indebted.”
It is clear that these words, written on June 8, 1942, referred to the home instruction in the ghetto…
After successive adjustments to the borders of the small ghetto, we moved to Chłodna Street. The house was on the odd-numbered side of the street, house 17 or 19. If Elektoralna Street was off to the side and lived its own life, Chłodna Street near Żelazna was the nerve center of the ghetto. Here, something was happening all the time. Visible from the windows were crowds thronging and sentries standing guard. Shouts were heard and sounds of shooting reached us. I remember that shortly after we moved, we were forbidden to approach the windows and were not allowed to go out on the balcony at all. Some military policeman (perhaps the famous “Frankenstein”) amused himself by shooting at targets. He never missed an opportunity, particularly when he spotted a moving silhouette. The apartment on Chłodna Street was a large one. Each room was occupied by one family. The bathroom was not used; we washed ourselves in washbasins in our rooms. I have before my eyes Mama, terribly thin, washing herself near the stove, in the one place which was not beset by terrible cold. In the largest room, at a round table brought over from Elektoralna, lessons continued. In the mornings, as before, the floors were polished. Around the walls stood shelves with books.
Here on Chłodna Street, my cousin, Irka, celebrated her eighteenth birthday, herlast.Therewereyoungpeople, there was dancing. I remember it well, because we “little ones” were not allowed at this evening event and were sitting in our place, dying of curiosity, and from the large “salon,” sounds of voices and even music reached us. Soon after, Irka perished in Poniatów or Treblinka. She still managed to send from there, to Mickiewicz Street where Father was hiding, a postcard with a plea for help. I remember well this yellow postcard which evoked a terrible panic. We were afraid that his hiding place had been revealed… I am writing about all of this in order to illustrate that in the ghetto existed not just the two extremes which are mentioned most often terrible hunger and the nightmare of death from starvation, on the one hand, and on the other, luxuries of the nouveaux riches making profitable deals and of officials, employed to maintain order, ready to do anything in order to save or prolong their own lives. There existed also those—I can’t say how many—who did everything that was in their power to live with dignity in times of contempt, to avoid the worst and survive, providing a handful of children with real spiritual comfort and the maximum nourishment for the body as was possible to earn with their own hard work.
Catastrophe arrived at the end of July 1942. Deportations, known as actions began. Their sword hung over each family. Only then did fear enter our home, choking, paralyzing. We came to know new words: “blockade,“ “hide-out,” a “good job” in a “shop.” The first such roundup took place probably still on Chłodna Street. I don’t know where the grown-ups hid themselves. Jerzyk and I, covered with some pillows and comforters, were suffocating from heat and horrible fear that they might discover us. Steps were heard, the stomping of boots with metal cleats, the sounds of a house being searched. Then, everything became quiet, and we were pulled out from our hiding place.
The area of the ghetto was shrinking. We moved from place to place, from apartment to apartment. Abandoned articles lay strewn about, among them toys, some that I had never had. My parents allowed me to take them for myself. We wandered around with bundles wheeled on something. I wheeled a doll carriage full of some kind of treasures––plush rabbits, dolls, etc. We also hauled sacks of books, continuously repacked, and becoming smaller and smaller. Father, to the very end, could not part with his beloved books; he was a bibliophile to the marrow. Finally, the day of August 31, 1942 arrived. We were in yet another apartment in the Leszno district––my parents, Aunt Ela with Uncle Mitek, and I. Late morning, or maybe in the afternoon, the entrance gate to the house was noisily opened, and those in the apartments were summoned in a loud voice to come downstairs with their belongings, to leave the door open so that it could be checked that no one had stayed behind. The announcement was made that failure to follow the order would result in death. Mama promptly pushed me under the iron bed, pushed a suitcase against it, and she and the others exited into the corridor, not descending downstairs, however, and not opening the doors.
I heard the rumble of steps on the stairs, then the thump of rifle butts at the door, a shout, “da, da, da,” doors being forced in, again “da, da, da,” then shots and sounds of blows, the noise of steps on the staircase, shouts in the courtyard, sounds of people departing, and finally, silence descended.
After a certain time, I crawled from under the bed and surreptitiously looked out of the window. The courtyard was deserted, only a fat stocky soldier in a green uniform stood below in the bright sunshine, rubbing his hands with contentment. I have always retained the image before my eyes of this hand motion and the piggish contented little eyes after a job well done.
Then some people came and took me to their place. Mother had been killed on the spot in the corridor, shot in the head with a bullet. Father, severely beaten, was taken to Umschlagplatz, from which he was rescued by Dr. Jan Blat (who himself was, according to reports, shot when he struck in the face a German who had pushed one of his loved ones with a rifle butt). My aunt and uncle perished in Treblinka.
The next day, my Father’s sister drafted a postcard to a friend of my mama, Zofia Korczak-Blaton (the card was preserved), “Dear Madame Zosia, from the day when we received your card, things have changed with us. At the beginning, S[ara] was very unwilling to separate from Wisia, later, it seemed to have been fortunate for her. It was only difficult to communicate. Now, it is thus: S[ara] is not alive; she perished on Monday the 31st of August… Wisia is with me. She was aware of her mother’s death… The only salvation for the child would be her departure… I beseech you for an immediate return answer. Either come here for her or furnish me with an address where it would be possible to take her. My telephone is 261-16…”
And indeed, a few days later, I was already on the Aryan side, to begin life again as Wiktoria Załęska, born in Lwów. Several times, I changed the place where I stayed. First, I was briefly in the Bielany district in the home of Mrs. Aldona Lipszyc, where Zofia Korczak-Blaton was renting a room. After receiving a birth certificate, I found myself with the family of Maria and Zygmunt Bobowski, active in a Polish Workers’ Party cell in the Żoliborz district. I attended a school directed by Stanisław Trojanowski. After the tragic death of “Zygo” on May 15, 1943, in an armed action, it was necessary to quickly find a new place. The apartment on Krasińska Street was “burnt.”
Stanisław Trojanowski – see story of Anna Trojanowska-Kaczmarska. (Author’s note).
“Zygo” – diminutive of Zygmunt (Bobowski).
I was taken in by Mrs. Jadwiga Świerczyńska, a teacher, who lived with her adopted son, Tadzio, at 41 Marszałkowska Street near Zbawiciela Square. Here, I spent the remaining months of the occupation. I continued to attend school on Potocka Street, and later, special study groups. We had the benefit of a modest assistance from Żegota. Every month, Jadwiga Pollak (during the occupation—Dobrowolska) delivered the money.
Infrequently, I saw Father, who was hiding on Mickiewicz Street as “Nikt” (nobody) until the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. Both Father and his sister, as well as several other persons, had been led out of the ghetto and assisted in getting settled among her relatives and friends by this same Zofia Korczak- Blaton, my future stepmother, who became for us, with the passage of years, a real “Granny Zosia.”
The three of us, “Aunt Jadzia,” Tadzio, and I, left Warsaw on October 8, 1944. Before, Tetka and Zosia visited us to share with us their insurrectionist pay (they participated in the uprising as peżetki). From the transit camp in Ursus, we were sent to the village of Aksice in the Miechów area, from which, already after the liberation, we transferred to Siersza near Trzebinia where “Aunt Jadzia” received a teacher’s position in the local high school, and I was able to continue my education. Here, Father found me.
Peżetki – Women in the organization Pomoc Żolnierzom (Aid to Soldiers), connected with the Home Army, who ran food canteens during the Warsaw Uprising.
Afterward, everything went “normally”—secondary school certificate, studies, marriage, the birth of a son, work in the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences, earning successive advanced degrees, and publishing a series of books.
My father, who passed away in 1978, kept his name from the occupation period, Wacław Zawadzki. He was in Kielce during the pogrom and that influenced this decision. After his death, I found in his papers a note, signed by Anna Duracz, which originated in 1948, in connection with Father’s removal from the party for “class difference” (he was a member of the Polish Socialist Party) at the time of its union with the Polish Workers’ Party. It was only then that I learned that he had been involved with the Jewish Fighting Organization and, as a placówkarz working outside the walls, had transported weapons, hidden in a little cart, through check points.
Placówkarz(e) – Outpost worker(s), those permitted to leave the ghetto daily for work outside.
After the war, he worked in publishing (Wiedza, State Publishing Institute) and towards the end of his life, he was one of the founders of KOR. Until 1989, I myself did not belong to any organization except youth organizations in school and Solidarity, in the period of its ascent and during martial law. (___) Not counting “home and friends,” I have been occupied, utterly and completely, with scholarly research under the enlightened direction of my mentor, Professor Stefan Kieniewicz.
Wiedza – the title means science/knowledge.
KOR – Committee for the Defense of Workers, principal dissident organization, a precursor of Solidarity.
Martial law – December 13, 1981 – Solidarity Party outlawed and martial law declared. July 1983 — Martial law ends..
Warsaw, November 1992
This account is an abbreviated version of text written many years ago and deposited with Yad Vashem, in connection with efforts to secure the medal of “Just Among the Nations of the World” for Jadwiga Świerczyńska; it was also filed with the Jewish Historical Institute. (Author’s note)