Personal Reflections - In Hiding
Esther Bem | Bronia Beker | Sally Eisner | Renata Eisen | Rosalind Goldenberg | Anita Ekstein | Bianca Schlesinger


I was born in a small town called Kosowa, in eastern Poland. My family consisted of my parents, three brothers who were all married and had children. I also had an extremely beautiful sister, two years older than I, not yet married.

We lived comfortably in Kozowa. It was a quiet town, not too much excitement but I liked it that way. Then, on September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland and the war was on. In the beginning I was excited. I had no idea what a war was all about. In two weeks time Poland capitulated and the Nazis took over. Germany and the Soviets made a pact and divided the country. The Soviets got the eastern part where we lived and the Germans got the western part of Poland.

Our life under the communists wasn't too bad even though they took away our store because one was not permitted to own any business or property. The authorities gave us jobs and we all had to go to work. For a while I worked in a teahouse. Later on an opportunity presented itself to be sent to take certain courses in Lvov (Lemberg) which was a large city. I volunteered to go because I wanted to get away from my job in the teahouse. In Lvov I enjoyed the school and my studies very much. Then in June 1941 war broke out between the Germans and the Russians. The Nazis broke the pact. They started to bomb the city and I had to leave Lvov. My roommate and I were 100 km from Kosowa and we had no other choice but to walk home. From time to time peasants gave us lifts on their wagons, let us sleep in their barns and somehow we arrived. I was glad to be at home and thought my troubles were over. Just the contrary, our real troubles had just begun. The Russians retreated and the Germans took over.

The Germans, in the beginning, didn't occupy our town but stayed 16 km from us. To satisfy their constant demands a Judenrat (special Jewish Council made up of prominent people, ed.) had to be established. Through this council, one day, came the order that all Jewish men between the ages of 18-60 had to gather in the school yard for "inspection". My three brothers went but my father, who was exactly 60, did not. The Nazis selected 300 of them, including two of my three brothers, led them to the nearby forest and shot them all. That is how my two brothers were murdered leaving behind their wives and children.

Soon after this horrible event our ghetto was established. Since my parents had a big house, all of us, ten people, moved in, to be together. By this time the Nazis started their random killings. Every time they entered our town, whenever they caught any Jews on the streets, they just killed them on the spot. So we started to build bunkers and other hiding places in our homes. In our own home, with the help of a few remaining strong men, we dug a very big cave in the ground, about 12 x 6 feet. Deep enough so an adult could stand up. Was covered it on top with some kind of a trap door and two pipes were installed in one corner, for air circulation. Frequently, all ten of us, had to spend hours there. Sometimes we stood in there a whole day, when the Nazis came and were looking for people to kill. We heard them walking around upstairs and only when we were sure they left would we come out of the cave.

One night April 1941, just three days before Passover, we were walking around in the ghetto. We heard from others that the Germans surrounded the town and the next day would liquidate the ghetto. We went home and later we all went into our hiding place, the cave. There we were: my father, my only remaining brother with his two daughters, the wife of one of my late brothers and their three children, my beautiful sister and myself.

In the morning we heard the Nazis walking upstairs, shouting and yelling, looking for us. While they didn't find the entrance to the cave they must have spotted the two air pipes sticking out. They stuffed them with something and thus blocked the flow of air. I was the first to faint. I was weak anyway because I just recently recovered from typhus of which my dear mother died. I didn't know about anything until later.

It so happened that my late mother had a sister who lived just around the corner from us and knew about the cave.

When the Germans finally left, she came to our house to see what happened. When she didn't see or hear anyone answering her calls, she became frightened. She went to look for the few remaining people in the ghetto. They came to the cave, opened the trap door and pulled us out, one by one. Later they told me that everyone was dead, suffocated, including my sister. They noticed that my eyelids started to flutter, so they poured cold water on me and I revived. The next thing I knew I was in my bed surrounded by a lot of strange people and also the one remaining doctor who finally told me what happened. I was shocked and terribly angry and asked them "why did you revive me?" "Now I am all alone." That day the Nazis killed 1,000 Kozowa Jews.

However, Joseph, a close friend, who later became my husband and whose family still lived in the ghetto, took me to his home. I had to leave my home anyway because the ghetto became smaller. I stayed there with them till June of that year when we heard that the Nazis wanted to make the town Judenrein (clean of Jews, ed.) and intended to kill everyone still in the ghetto.

Joseph knew a man, a friend, in a nearby, small town and went to ask him if he would hide us. He agreed. He was very good to us, just like a father. He was convinced that he'll be the only one to give an eyewitness account of what the Nazis were doing. Joseph's family went into hiding at another farm. On his farm, in a big barn, he built a partition wall of hay. Behind it we could sleep during the night. We also dug a large cave in the ground and during the day we just sat there doing nothing. At night we could come out a little before we went to sleep. A bottle of kerosene with a wick gave us a little light. Our host was a very, very nice man. He brought me a pencil and paper and urged me to record my thoughts and feelings.

I wrote poems and stories and whatever came to my mind. We stayed at this hiding place for ten months. He brought us food and other supplies. He was a poor man but we gave him money and he pretended that he was wheeling and dealing to fool his neighbours about the amount of food and kerosene he bought. His wife was doing the cooking. Later we heard that the front and the Russians are coming back, closer. Our host was a communist. He warned his neighbours about working with the Nazis. He threatened to "I'll tell about what you are doing now". So they were angry with him and on March 17, according to his wife, the Banderovskys, a Ukrainian group collaborating with the Nazis, came at night and killed him.

The next morning his widow, who never really liked us, came and told us that we had to leave right away because she won't feed us any more. Our legs were very weak from lack of use for ten month but we had to leave in a hurry and returned to Kozowa and ended up in the Jewish cemetery. Oh, how we envied the dead!

Joseph remembered a young Gentile man, with whom he went to school. We went to his farm and asked him for help. He got really scared seeing us alive. He was incredulous that we escaped death. He agreed to hide us in his barn but his wife was not to know about it. Everybody knew us in that town so we really had to be hidden well. We climbed into the attic of the barn, covered ourselves with lots of straw and just sat there. We were there for two days and he fed us, pretending he was feeding the pigs.

But hiding there was the the worst because the Germans came to his farm, set up an army field kitchen and some of them stayed in his house. He had difficulty looking after us. One day the Nazis threw out some sour, spoiled, rotten cabbage soup, he grabbed it and brought it to us to eat. It was awful but we ate it and got very sick from it. Imagine, the two of us hiding in that tiny place. Vomiting and with diarrhea. It was plainly: horrible. We stayed there for two weeks, when one day we had to leave again because the soldiers wanted to put their horses in there. Since the Germans didn't know who was who at the farm we just walked away unnoticed.

That night we slept among the ruins of the empty ghetto homes. But this farmer directed us to a friend of his who might help us.

The next day we went there at six o'clock in the morning. The family had six children and when the mother saw me she kissed me and was truly glad to see me and was willing to hide me. But I told her that I am not alone. She gave me food, bread and lard and told me to come back in the evening. At night , when it was dark we came back but by now she seemed afraid and wanted to change her mind but Joseph talked her into hiding us. We went to her potato cellar, dug it even bigger than it was and we crawled into it. The front was, by now, very close. We expected the Soviets' arrival any day. But 30 km from the town they stopped.

This family was feeding us three times a day. They were really good to us, but after two weeks she came and told us that she cannot do it any more. She was sorry, but we had to go. I was ready to surrender to the Germans and be shot. But Joseph would not give up and told the farmer's wife that we won't budge because we have no other place to go. She told us that in that case, because she was very scared, she will move out of her house. She'll leave us water and crackers and the rest was up to us.

In the meantime she didn't go anywhere because some German soldiers moved into her house. She could not look after us any more but the oldest daughter knew where and who we were and very cleverly did bring us food whenever she could. We stayed in that dugout for four more months.

Then one day, the mother came and told us that she saw a Russian soldier. In no time they came to her farm and as they were standing there and talking I just couldn't stand hiding any more, crawled out of the cellar and told her something like "Mama I couldn't find it" like I was there to look for something and she told the soldier that I was one her children. After that I just walked right back to my original home which wasn't very far. Joseph left the dugout later, after the Russian soldiers left. So we were liberated by the Russians in July 1944.

In the meantime only the foundation of my house was left standing. As I was sitting on the ruins, a neighbour, a shoemaker walked by and spotted me. He knew my father very well through business dealings. He turned around went back to his house and came back with a photograph of my family. "I had the feeling that someone from your family will come back and would want this photo" he said as he handed me the picture. I was so happy to have it that I didn't care how he happened to have it. All the other neighbours were kind to us, bringing food

Later we learned that my aunt who lived just around the corner from us also survived. So did her daughter and son-in-law, by hiding in different places. My aunt didn't have to hide. She was so well loved and respected by all because she always helped the poorest of the poor, that while she was walking around freely, living among the ruins nobody gave her away. The Nazis didn't know who was who unless someone pointed a finger. The people in the town also made sure she had food at all times.

While my aunt and cousin stayed in that ghost town, Joseph and I decided to leave. We settled in Lvov where we found jobs. I started to work as a secretary and Joseph, by now my my husband, as a chauffeur. I was very depressed though and couldn't see any reason to live when all my family perished. In fact I was thinking about suicide. Then my husband suggested we have a baby, so giving me good reason to live. In the meantime we also re-married properly with a Rabbi. In a little while I did become pregnant. But then we had to move further west because we didn't want to become Russian citizens and that was a requirement to stay in Lvov.

I was by now seven months pregnant. Eventually, after a difficult and complicated journey, we arrived to Lodz which was just liberated also by the Russian army. This was in January 1945. Here we found an apartment. Joseph eked out a living by wheeling and dealing. The war was over on May 8,1945 and my daughter Marilla was born on June 23,1945.

Nobody in Lodz knew that we were Jewish. Life was easier this way. But I didn't want to live where I still had to hide and be afraid to light my Shabbes candles. So with the help of the Bricha, we left and first went to Czechoslovakia then to Austria where we joined up with my aunt who apparently, also left Kozowa. We stayed here in a D.P. camp in Bindermichel, near Linz, for 2 1/2 years. My husband was working for the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Life in this D.P. camp wasn't too bad. Almost like we were on vacation. We were fed, given clothing and I took a course in an ORT school to be a beautician. I still have my diploma, but I could not practice it here in Canada. We were brought to Canada buy the Fur Industry as fur workers. My husband declared, in Austria, that he was a furrier so we came as such.

Now, here in Canada we started a whole new life.

Joseph ended up working in a factory, making fur slippers. Then when he was laid off from that job he decided, with two other experienced workers, to open his own slipper factory, called "Quality Slipper Co Limited", which was a success. One partner dropped out, but with the other man they remained partners in the business for 28 years.

When we came to Canada our daughter Marilyn was 2 1/2 years old. When she grew older she wanted three things: a car, our own house and a baby sister. Years later she had all that and in that order. Seven years later Jeanne, our second daughter was born. She is now a fashion consultant and has her own TV show. She is married and has two daughters of her own. My two lovely granddaughters. Marilyn is now a university professor in Los Angeles where she lives with her husband. They have no children.

I love them all dearly.

I fell in love, with my husband Joseph, when I was a teenager. We went through a lot of horrors and hardships. But we also built a good life together in Canada. Nine years ago he died and I still miss him very much.  I'll always miss him.

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© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
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