Personal Reflections - In Ghettos/Camps
HELEN SCHWARTZ'S STORY....
A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR
Recounted by Helen Schwartz
Written by Marnie and Rena Schwartz
Edited by Susan Schwartz
Copyright October 1998
At Blishjen, Gershin had a friend named Eric who worked outside the camp and smuggled in extra food on a daily basis. Eric was sometimes caught and beat over the matter, but he did not care as he continued to do it to bring in food. He had a will to live and survive. Gershin saw this attribute in him and thought he would be a good man to take care of me. He introduced me to Eric which was the beginning of our relationship.
Eric used to visit my work station, dress up in two or three suits, basically stealing clothes, and sell it to the Polish people on the other side of the fence for some food. He was a rebel and a bully, but he was far better off than many other Jewish people in the camp. I was also better off under Eric's care. He would not settle for the treatment that the Germans gave. He was a smart man with initiative, a true smuggler and entrepreneur. People were jealous of his tactics and success. Yet, he was also a generous man who always shared his food with those around him. Now, as I think back, I realize that the food Gershin brought to me probably came from Eric.
One day, Eric came to me and brought me a big onion. I had not seen such a beautiful vegetable in months. He said it was for me, and included the words, "Now you are my girlfriend". I could not believe it. This was Gershin's friend whom I did not really know well at the time. I started to tell him that I already had Gershin as a dear friend. He insisted that from today onward, he would be my new "friend". This went on for a few days.
When I finally saw Gershin, he would hide from me. I finally tracked him down and asked him why it seemed he had passed me onto Eric. He said "Yes, that's right. Very simple. Somebody has to survive this wild time we are living. Eric can help you more than I can. He can take you further than I can. Please trust me and do what I say. I hope to G-d some of us will survive. I pray that you will survive this madness."
I could not believe my ears. He had really entrusted this man Eric to watch over me. As well, I could see how much he liked me and wanted the best for me. I trusted and believed in him. When Eric came back, I agreed to be his friend only if he would help Gershin too, and he readily agreed.
So it happened that in that time of need and despair, I had a new friend who took very good care of me. At one time, I was without shoes, because the man who usually made shoes for us would not give any to me unless I would have sexual intercourse with him. At Blishjen, if a man had extra food, he would ask a girl for sexual pleasures and pay her in food. This was common, but not for me. This shoemaker could not understand that I wanted only shoes and nothing more. I had morals that some other girls had forgotten about during this hard time. They probably thought, "I don't know how long I will survive, so I might as well enjoy myself in one way or another." Some of them were so desperate that they used their body to pay for the bare necessities that they needed.
One day, still without shoes, I could not go out to be counted because I was barefoot. The Germans marched into the barracks, picked me up and dropped me into a dirty, cold cellar. I remained there for a number of days and nights. I do not remember how long I stayed there. I just remember myself crying and praying for survival. If I survived that hole, through day and night, with mice, dirt and darkness, I believed that I could survive anything. In fact, I think I became stronger in that hole. After that experience, I was more determined than ever that I was going to survive this dreaded massacre. When the Germans finally let me out of the hole, I told Eric what had happened to me. Eric was so incensed at the shoemaker for causing my pain and horror that he went to see him, and the very next day, I received a pair of shoes. I'm not sure what Eric did or said to him but I'm sure it was severe. To this day, I still cannot believe all that I had experienced over a simple pair of shoes. Yet I felt proud that I had maintained my virginity and my dignity throughout this experience.
At Blishjen, we slept on straw, not on the floor. One night, before falling asleep, I noticed that someone had stolen my cover. Although I was upset and cold, Frieda told me not to make a fuss. The following evening, we decided to steal two covers and made ourselves a bra and underwear. We also made some extra pairs and sold them for bread. It was then that we realized we had to use our brains and be more daring in order to survive. We were' learning the ropes' in this environment that we were living.
At this camp, the Germans shaved most females' hair because of the lice that was rampant. The Germans also did this as another way to humiliate and dehumanize us. Believe me, it worked. Women hated to have their heads shaved. After the shaving, these women would wrap a cloth or 'shmata' (rag) around their heads like a turban. Thinking ahead, while in line for shaving, Frieda and I pushed ourselves near the wall and we ran into the washroom where Frieda took some shmatas (rags) and wrapped it over our heads. We looked like all the other women whose heads were shaved except we still had our hair. That was Frieda, she was always ahead of the game. We stayed with our heads covered for the next two weeks, feeling anything but humiliated.
ON THE FARM...
It was now two months later, summer, and the Germans came in and chose about thirty women, including Frieda and me, and commanded us to go with them. We were glad that we were not separated but we were scared. Frieda was always beside me, and to this day, I believe it was she that helped me survive.
They took us to an empty barrack, kept us there overnight, and in the morning, we were hoarded onto a truck. Everyone thought we were being taken away to be killed. Eric was upset and ran to one German he knew asking about my whereabouts. He tried his best to have me released, but to no avail. However, the German assured Eric that we were not going to be killed, and instead, we were actually going to be working on a farm. To our surprise, this German was correct. We were not taken to a hell-hole. We were taken to a farm that was like a vacation in the midst of all of our misery. It was surprising but a reality. Life was looking up for us.
There were about 30 of us that came on that truck, and about 30 more women were there when we arrived. We heard that they had come from another ghetto called Routemer. The first aspect of this new world was that we had real beds to sleep on. In fact, they were bunk beds. After we got there, we found out our job was to pick out vegetables from the earth. We were forced to wear a uniform, consisting of gray and white heavy dresses. It was scorching outside, with extremely hot temperatures yet we were forced to wear these horrible outfits. We 'shvitzed' (sweated). However, there was one good thing about these dresses. They were so large that we were able to smuggle fresh vegetables from the yards by stuffing them under our dresses. We would bring the food back to the house at night and enjoy a feast. We ate like never before.
Two women lived in our house, and their responsibility was to cook and clean for us. We began living a totally different life than that in the camps. There were no SS men, just young soldiers. In the early morning, they would take us by truck to the farm and bring us back to the house at night. It was hard work for the entire day, but at least we were not cold or hungry. We felt very fortunate that we were not in the camp at Blishjen. Instead, we seemed to be living in a house, living like human beings. There was a huge difference. We had so much food we had to bury some of it for the day when we would need it.
We stayed there the entire summer. The only negative aspect of this experience was the behaviour of the young soldiers. They watched us and made our lives miserable. They used to catch field mice and throw it in the women's bosoms and they would always push us to work harder. The young soldiers used to call me, "Grubby number one ", interpreted as fat girl. It was not that I was fat, but because of the feasting every evening as of late, I was almost chubby or rather meaty. I was never skinny like many other women in concentration camps or even at the farm. I looked like a worker, since I was strong and capable of work. I think this feature helped me to survive the war, since I never looked frail or weak.
THE LITTLE MOUSE...
One young soldier called me over to him. There he was, wearing rubber gloves, holding a mouse by its tail. He brought it straight to me, and asked if I saw the live mouse. He then continued to ask me to open my dress. I did not want to let him. I thought I was stronger than him. I did not want him to take advantage of me. I thought for a moment. I bent down and I said, "This is such a nice, beautiful, gorgeous mouse". And I slowly opened my dress, and said, "Here little mouse, come and play." The young soldier was surprised by my comments. Obviously, he was not satisfied with my reaction because most women screamed and hollered in fright over the little mouse. But I didn't. Since he knew that I was not afraid, or rather it seemed like I was not afraid of the mouse, he took the mouse and with all of his frustration, he threw it away. He then looked back at me and slapped my face. He was not satisfied with my surprising behaviour but he felt he had to do something to punish me. After this incident, he left me alone.
BACK TO BLISHJEN...MEETING ERIC AGAIN...
At the end of the summer, a truck came to take us back to Blishjen. While sitting in the truck, we reflected on our time at the farm. I realized that this summer was the best thing that could have happened to me since the war broke out. I was clean, strong and dark because of the sun. I felt like a human being. It was refreshing. Frieda and I had no other clothes except our dresses and unfortunately, there was no place to go except from where we had come. We were loaded up into army trucks, all of us young, strong and healthy women. We were like sisters, happy to be together. Sadly, it was clear to all of us that this feeling was going to end soon.
When we stopped at a station, the cattle cars were on the tracks waiting for us. Some Jews at Blishjen knew that the women were coming back. It was there that I saw Eric once again. He knew I was returning and was anxiously waiting for me. When he saw me again, he could not believe his eyes. To him, I was beautiful. We hugged and I gave him some bread that I had brought with me. I felt like I was somehow repaying him for all his kindness and protection by giving him food. That night, he told me that he loved me. He said "G-d willing when the war will be over, I will marry you." And he asked for my hand in marriage.
My first reaction was to laugh. I thought he was crazy! No one here thought about the future. We lived each and every day as if it were our last. No one knew if they were going to survive and what tomorrow would bring. And here was Eric optimistically planning for the future. Somehow, he knew that G-d wanted us to survive and be together. Laughing again, I agreed to marry him after the war. I gave him my hand. Yet, as much as I would have loved to marry him, I was pessimistic and my heart was heavy. First of all, he was already a married man, separated from his wife and two children by the Germans. As well, he was fourteen years older than me, and the war was still going strong. Yet, Eric always used to say to me, "We have 51% chance to stay alive and 49% chance to die. So always concentrate on the 51%." He always maintained a positive attitude. He continually said the same thing over and over again. He was a survivor. I think his philosophy about his 51% chance kept him alive when he was in Auschwitz.