LUDWIKA FISZER'S CHILLING ESCAPE FROM DEATH
Some of Warsaw's remaining Jews, among them well known public figures, were evicted in April/May 1943 to the concentration camp in Poniatowa, a small village in the district above the Visla, near Lublin. The Germans transferred a number of factories there, which had been operating previously in the Warsaw ghetto.
Ludwika Fiszer, a former inmate and escapee, gave her deposition, which was transferred in1944 from Warsaw to London along with the material from the Polish Jewish National League.
The testimony is presented here, unaltered and in the manner that it was presented by her to the Jewish National League in Warsaw.
The author, about 40 years old, is not active in public life. She is among the survivors.
In Ludwika's own words:
I worked in a facility for floor tiles. This plant became the favorite of the SS sub-lieutenant Wallerang who allowed two of the inmates to bring breakfast and lunch in a pot.
I was, in a way, exempt from standing in line. After much commotion we would march to the camp under the watchful eyes of the station commander, the highest-ranking policeman of the Ukrainian camp. In order to get by the guard we needed passes which had to be shown with raised hands in order that the gendarme or Ukrainian policeman could see it. For some time now, people have been shot for not complying with this policy.
The men had to remove their hats and we all passed the guard with fearful tremor in our hearts. Workers of the Arbeitseinsatz, who passed the guards, were rushing to the field. The head-count started at 6:15 A.M. The whole neighborhood was present. The Tabensians (those who worked in the Tabens factory) went to the plant.
Machine guns and tanks surrounded our square. We did not understand why they brought tanks. We were joking about the fact that in order to kill us, one machine gun would suffice. They did not need tanks. The month of October fell upon us like a bad omen. In the beginning of the month the schedule of the patrols was changed from 8:00 to 6:00 A.M. Even then, due to some good signs, we deluded ourselves that we would spend the entire winter in Poniatowa.
Many people in the neighborhood lived in attics, and the SS arranged to move people into apartments when the weather got colder. They distributed blankets, underwear and clogs for our feet. They even placed heaters in the new bunks.
Suddenly, out of the blue, the Tabensians were informed that the next day, 9th of October, the head count would take place at 2: 00 P.M. in the plant. It had been a long time since a head count was conducted during the daytime. The atmosphere in the workshop was completely calm. Apart from the visits of various committees who were interested only in the quality of the work and not in the workers, the plant was operating with almost no supervision. Once a day, Bau or Murman, the managers, would make short rounds; otherwise everything was quiet. That same day, Bau promised:
"There will be only a head count…." Not everyone believed what they were told and not everyone showed up for work that day. Since the head count was set for 2:00 o’ clock, the first shift at the plant was delayed. Usually the 1st shift was from 6:30 A.M. till 2:30 P.M. and the second set out for work at 1:30 P.M. in order to arrive at 2:00 at the camp, in time to eat lunch. When the second shift arrived they counted all the people together. The Camp Supervisor ("Lagerspiess"), Glei, conducted the count. A number of people were missing from the list. Glei was getting ready to search for the missing people in the neighborhood. A few days earlier, Glei was overheard saying that the "summer camp" had to be destroyed.
At the same time a head count of the Arbeitseinsatz was conducted in the neighborhood. It lasted from 2:00-4:00. In the fifth district the head count of the Arbeitseinsatz was cancelled. The Tabensians disregarded the roll call and did not turn out for work that day. SS soldiers joined the ranks during the roll call. All living quarters had to be empty between 2:00 – 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon. Only the sick or mothers with children up to four were usually exempt from joining the lines, but not that day. They too had to vacate the premises in order to be counted. It seemed as if everything was flowing smoothly and after the head count people returned to their lodgings. As though a dark cloud was suspended from the sky, the entire camp was enwrapped in mourning.
At 4:30 Glei called the quarter and inquired if the roll call had ended. The SS soldier Brilush answered affirmatively. Then an order was received to re-amass the whole camp, and he commanded everyone to return immediately. The thunderous voices of the Werkschutz (guards of the workshop) (1) was heard, "everyone outside;" and the gunfire on the multitude of people had already started. Many women were already injured.
People, fearful and without having time to put on coats, leaving their rooms unlocked, running under the barrage of gunfire to the square where the roll-call was about to start again. The Ukrainian guards are standing ready with their guns, waiting for the order to shoot. Speedily, everyone is organized in rows of five. The heart is racing, eyes are wide with fear. There are no questions. Deathly silence. Brilush asks the group leaders to report their number of people. Each in turn complies. He suspiciously repeats his question and says terrible things, such as "if the group leaders do not admit to the presence of outsiders in their groups, they will be shot on the spot."
It turned out that a few dozen miserable souls who missed the workshop count joined the present group. Among them were at least ten people with legitimate medical exemptions. The Ukrainians surrounded the unlucky group immediately. Except for the ten people with medical permits, all the outsiders were herded towards the grove of trees near the entrance to the quarters. In the meantime, the sound of the bell was heard in the camp. It was four o’clock and work was finished for the day. Workers,1500 of them, started gathering as usual and returning to their living quarters.
Upon their entering the camp, the division was halted. By chance, I was among the first to arrive and served as an unwilling witness to the events that followed: Women cried and fainted. One begged aloud, "commandant, sir, I swear to g-d, I work everyday. Only today…." The talking stopped. Wailing and howling, everyone followed the order to undress and lay down. Dozens of guns were fired. The blood froze in our veins. I began to shake from fear. My ten-year-old little girl, who by chance, I took with me that day, comforts me. My husband holds his hand over my mouth in order to silence me. He covers my eyes. We must be quiet! I saw the workshop overseer Gedanken beg to save his wife by asking for her release. In response, he was also ordered to strip and lie beside her. After this terrible carnage, the Ukrainians returned to their homes. The SS soldiers, Brilush, Glei, and the company commander drove to the camp, probably to their hotel. Our division was sent to the quarters. We passed the body of a young man lying fully clothed on the road. He was probably hurrying to the roll call at the basket-weaving workshop. He didn’t make it in time; his bread, apples, and his knapsack were strewn about him. We stepped over naked bodies and burst terror stricken into the quarter. Each one of us had left someone close to us, at home. Everyone hurried to see if the family was still all right. People were screaming, crying and shouting. A young woman was scurrying about, screaming, "Father, I killed you! I didn’t let you go to the roll call at the workshop; how can I continue living carrying the burden of your death?"
After this last roll call, the shootings and murders continued as a result of any little misdeed. They started arresting the wealthiest people. There were the Opolion, Noifeld, Proisal, Niadzwiadaz, Szachand other families. They were released for an exorbitant price. The shooting and the arrests continued every day. People were shot in their hovels even though they had medical certificates releasing them from work.
I also got into trouble during this tragic time. I worked in a tile factory in the 5th district. One day, in the latter half of October, I fell ill with a bad cold. I had a runny nose and a terrible, dizzying headache. It was a beautiful sunny day. I went out of the workshop in order to sit and warm myself in the sun. Without my noticing, Glei rode his horse towards me. He stopped about 5 meters from where I was sitting on the tiles. My head was bent, leaning on my hands. I suddenly heard his voice saying in German," What is with you? Are you sleeping on the job? " I jumped up from my seat and answered quickly, "I am not sleeping. I have a terrible headache." Luckily a kapo (Jewish policeman) walked by and diverted his attention. He screamed at me, "Get back to work immediately!!" This is how I was saved from certain death that day. About 20 people were shot for sitting and sleeping on the job or, for lack of permits, and for other small misdemeanors.
On the 24th of October we came, as usual, to the square. The head count was dragging on. Fish reported his toll to the camp supervisor, Glei, who in turn passed it on to camp commander Hering.. The SS Untersturmführer Wahlerang, arrived. Lingering, like a performer waiting for the audience to applaud, he came slowly towards us. Those who were busy with urgent work, like for instance sewing, carpentry, or shoe making, continued toward their workplace. Those of us, however, who did less important work, were suddenly surrounded by the Ukrainians. We were given shovels and were directed to the woods to do different work. Overwhelmed with shock and emotion, we started our work. Block 6 was spread out opposite block 5. On this lot, near the woods, there was a beautiful double storied house with luxurious plush furniture and carpets. This served as accommodation and offices for the SS. Some of those working there were Jews. It was referred to as "the hotel." In the woods, near the hotel we were ordered to make a clearing and to dig a ditch. The field was covered with shrubbery and roots. The designated area to be cleared was about a half a kilometer long. The area, marked by wire cable and stakes, was one meter wide and two meters deep. We worked with shovels and pick-axes.
Wahlerang didn’t let up on us for one minute. "Swing those shovels, heave those axe," he ordered while he was beating and whipping us with all his strength. He yanked women’s hair, battered, trampled and beat us with all his strength. His friend Gircik also whipped and set his dog on us while shouting, "Tempo! Tempo!"
It was a freezing wintry, sunless day; in spite of the weather we were forced to remove our coats, gloves and kerchiefs. Once, I dared to raise my head and glance at the other workers. My eyes wandered to a red-haired woman. She hesitated a moment to straighten a painful back. Gircik approached and whipped her on the back. I never saw her again. I never again dared raise my head,
My light hair and complexion stood out among the dark-haired women working there. The pain was excruciating. We worked from 7 A.M. till noon when the midday bell struck to mark a twenty-minute break. The SS left for lunch, but not before they brought the Ukrainians to guard us. During the break we lined up in rows of five in order to have our numbers checked. We were compelled to sit while the group leaders handed us our knapsacks. That day we hadn’t eaten breakfast. Since we had been called for special work, more than 2000 people, I presumed that the kitchen would send us coffee for the break. Throats dry from thirst, each person grabbed his knapsack. I managed to eat half of a small apple. The bread was beyond my capacity to devour; my throat was so dry from thirst, but then we were already ordered back to work. Usually our superiors took a 2-hour lunch break but this day they hurried back after ½ hour so as to continue torturing us again. My hands were covered with blood-filled blisters. I worked with the remainder of my strength.
We continued at this tempo till 4 o’clock anxiously awaiting the bell that terminates the day. Four o’clock finally arrives but there is no bell. We were not excused from work. Every 15 minutes that passed seemed like eternity. Wahlerang drove the tired, feverish, thirsty laborers to continue. Gircik, on the other hand, always accompanied by his black dog, whistled and ordered the work to stop. We jumped out of the ditches and started to dress. Suddenly we heard Wahlerang’s thunderous voice," Who allowed you to stop working?" and before Gircik had a chance to explain that he was acting on Hering’s orders, we grabbed our shovels and resumed digging. Those who did not manage to recompose themselves in time were the recipients of Wahlerang’s vicious boot. To our relief, Hering arrived at five o’clock to explain to Wahlerang that work could be stopped because it was getting dark.
We jumped out of the ditch, lining up in rows of five and took our tools back to the shed. The tools were our property. An order was given on the 5th of October to return them once the workday ended. Non-compliance carried a death penalty. We surely obeyed, believing that once the axes were returned, our "masters" would leave us in peace; they probably were afraid that we would use these tools to attack them.
About 2500 people went without lunch that day because of the disorganization concerning the food vouchers. They lay down to sleep on empty stomachs.
On the 3rd of November we came to a head count. A long time elapsed before the exact count was reported. In the meantime, an extra division of Ukrainians arrived. No one was sent to work. We were at a loss to understand what was happening. I noticed suddenly that there was a selection of people—probably a transport of sorts. Fear struck my heart, for I was without my husband and daughter. I frantically searched for a way out. Without further hesitation I told my group leader that my face hurt terribly, probably as a complication of my severe cold I developed sinus condition. Before the group leader could reply I was already on my way to the doctor, accompanied by an SS soldier. I covered my head with a kerchief. The Ukrainians surrounded the selected group and led them to an empty wooden building. Glei, the camp commander himself, searched their belongings. Those who were not ready to be transported did not manage to hide their money, which now fell into Glei’s hands. After the robbery, Glei announced that he received instruction from Lublin to cancel the transport. For now, everyone was released.
Thursday, 4th of November: A raging windstorm ripped the leaves from the trees and blanketed the streets with a beautiful colored carpet. The bell chimed at 5 o’clock. After the second bell I was already downstairs with my husband, on the way to the road.
What turmoil in the street! I did not know what was happening. I wanted to continue but the supervisor from the workshop was shouting: "The headcount is at 6:00, everyone outside." I raced back to the hut in order to dress my daughter and pack her breakfast. I collected all the bread in the room, a pat of butter and a few apples. I placed a towel, soap comb and a razor in my husband’s knapsack. He shaved and put an extra sweater on because it was cold.
Before I could finish, the supervisor’s shouts were heard again, " Everyone outside." We had to leave the room at once. There was commotion in our neighbor’s room. Everyone is dressing haphazardly so that they could get out of the house quickly. We are rushing for the road; no one bothers with the formation of five. We are hurriedly marching to the camp. After a few meters we suddenly notice Ukrainians training their guns on us from both sides of the road. We continue in haste and I realize that we are surrounded by SS also pointing their guns on us. Before I could understand what was going on, I heard an SS saying, "why don’t you run a little?" We had to run a half a kilometer. Once we were allowed to slow the pace we could glimpse at the SS soldiers; they were wearing gray coats with green collars. Some said that these were Wehrmacht soldiers of the regular German Army. We couldn’t imagine the reason for use of so many soldiers and guns. Our footsteps were silent until we reached the guard post. The permits were redundant now. However the men still had to remove their caps. After passing the guards my husband and I went separate ways. He was one of the "Tabensians".
Beyond the guard-post, I saw Hering and Wahlerang standing by the car talking to strangers, SS soldiers. This meant that the square where the roll call was usually held was empty. I felt my knees go weak. After parting from my husband, my daughter and I continued marching. I saw on the way that Glei had selected a group of women to be sent to block number 6. There were about 100 people under the watchful eyes of the SS. At first, we thought another transport was being selected. I wanted to join them but my child made me too noticeable. I had to give up the idea. Since people were wandering around aimlessly, I turned to the wooden building to search for my husband. I did not find him. In the meantime, the SS were shoving people into the building. This was a place, which previously housed 8000 people. Now, since new buildings were being constructed, people were relocated to the newer barracks, men and women separately. Only the center of the building was occupied; the periphery was going to be a new metal workshop. More than 13,000 people were ushered into the building. There was screaming and wailing. Mothers lost their children, wives lost their husbands. Everybody was searching for someone. Parentless children cried endlessly.
Not all the mothers took their children with them. The Ukrainians searched the houses and whoever was found—children, the sick, dressed or partly dressed—were rounded up and taken to the barracks. The SS blockaded the rest of the building and forbade us to go near the windows. One soldier shot at the ceiling and ordered five men to be removed at certain intervals. I was sitting on a bench near the exit and saw all my acquaintances leaving the building. I nodded to say goodbye. From the corner of my eye I noticed a group of men talking quietly to Lant, the camp commander. I went over to find out what was going on. A Viennese man answered me, "don’t you know that you are a half hour away from death?" His question did not penetrate my consciousness. After several thousand men had left, I finally found my husband. He told me that the camp was being shut down; the men would probably be taken by foot to an unknown destination, and the women would be transported by train. I was so stunned by what he said that I completely forgot to repeat to my husband the words of the man from Vienna. My husband broke down completely. He cried like a small child and could not be calmed. The 50 member groups left quickly. The women silently weeping parted from their husbands. My husband's turn finally arrived. He was crying and I stood motionless and watched him, thinking to myself, this is the second time my soul is being ripped apart. My husband, without knowing that in a few moments he will be shot, left the building promising to search for me in all the other camps. Those were his last words.
All the people from the workshop shift were removed, and immediately afterwards the men were taken away. Now the women’s turn arrived. Before leaving, they powdered their faces and rouged their cheeks in order to look healthy for what they thought was another selection for work. Bauman, the shift commander, and the SS soldiers arranged groups of 50 women and started to send them out of the building. All this activity was conducted in almost total silence. The SS made a thorough search of all the bunks, suitcases, the slabs where we slept; the sheets were torn with their bayonets—all this in order to find hidden people or money.
I prepared to leave in one of the first groups. I was desperate to know what had happened to my husband. My friend held me back. She said that it is no good to be among the first in the selection line. Holding my daughter’s hand tightly, I left the building. Just as we were leaving, we heard the shots. We looked around but still did not realize what was going on. By the new buildings, near the road we were stopped and ordered to remove our shoes. I shouted, "Women, I believe we are going to our graves!"
Barefoot, we went to the next building. There, the SS ordered us to hand over our valuables: gold, watches, money, and jewelry. Those who didn’t comply would be shot, they said. I see around me women stripped naked, with arms raised over their heads, walking aimlessly in a circle. "What is going on here?" I ask myself. I am young and shapely, but with my little girl I won’t last in a selection!"
We had to hurry and get undressed. I saw a young woman jump up the stairs and call to her mother–in-law, "Good-bye mother, see you in the next world." In one of the rooms, three women were standing and arranging clothes. An idea flashed in my mind—maybe I could join them and arrange the clothes with them; but what would I do with my daughter? I had a few thousand zlotys with me. I said to my friend, "I will be buried with my money," and wrapped them in a handkerchief and hid them on my body. My bracelet and ring had to be given up but I still managed to hide another ring with a pin in my hair.
We stripped quickly and marched with raised hands to the ditches dug with our own hands. Two-meter deep graves already filled with naked bodies. My neighbor from the camp with her 14-years old sweet, fair-haired daughter, an innocent smile on her lips—It seemed as if they were just searching for a place to rest.
The SS soldier cocked his revolver; perhaps it was stuck, for he was fiddling with it. I looked up at him and he said, "not so fast." In spite of that we lay down, so as not to have to see the bodies. My little girl asked me to cover her eyes; she was afraid. I hugged her head and covered her eyes as she asked me to. With my right hand I held her tight. That is how we lay there with our heads bent down.
Within a moment the shooting started. The shots were aimed at us. I felt heat in my left arm. A bullet had passed through it penetrating my 10-year old daughter’s skull. She never even shivered.
Then I hear the thunder of shots again in a nearby place. I’m in shock. I feel a pain in my head but I have no recollection if I passed out or not. I hear my neighbor’s dying groan. In a moment there is total silence. I am still conscious; after all I’m still alive and waiting for the bullet to end it all. Outwardly, apparently, I do not show signs of life. After a while the SS bring another woman and child. The woman’s last wish is to kiss her child; the murderer did not allow it. She kneels beside me on my right hand side and leans her head on mine. The slaughterer shoots, and her blood spurts and oozes down my head and collects at the back of my neck and in my hair. From the back, I surely looked as if I’m dead. The shooting continues, I lose track of time, and then silence rules the place.
So, I’m alive! I’m incapable of focusing my mind on what to do next. After an hour or so, I hear the SS again. One of them steps on my shoulder and shoots while giving orders to the others, "black-haired, fair-haired." I understand that they came to verify that we were all dead. Certainly there were wounded, since I had heard groans, but after the last volley of shots everything was quiet.
The soldiers left but I didn’t have the courage to lift my head. I was feverish from the cold, the bodies which still warmed me during the day, have gone cold. Wind was blowing through the trees, chanting kaddish for the dead. Ukrainians passed by a few times, cursed the "zyd", spat on us and left. The hours passed slowly, each seeming like eternity. With evening, the Ukrainians returned and covered us with fir branches.
I feared that maybe they want to burn us. Fear-struck, I wanted to scream that I’m alive, but no sound came from my throat. I heard their steps receding, and only then did I dare to lift my head a little. The branches hid me, so I could gaze about me. It was evening. My first gaze fell on my daughter, her usually oval face was now rounded and ashen with death. I kissed her hair and neck. Her hand fell from mine.
I looked at my aching left arm and saw two holes. The arm was soaked with blood. I rested my head again, for I was very tired. In spite of the exhaustion and the dizziness I started formulating plans about what to do next. I did not know the area or exactly where I was. I thought to escape towards the woods but I was naked! We were lying near the road to town. Should I go there to find clothes? The way there passes by the guard post and the illuminated gate. Never mind the 2-kilometer distance. Just then I noticed two Ukrainians walking in the direction of town
They seemed to be scared of the bodies. My plan was inoperative. I remained lying there asking myself how in heaven did the bullet go through me and how was it that I did not show any signs of life? I had no hope of being saved—and not only because I was naked. I continued watching the Ukrainian’s hut and the hotel. The windows were well lit. Suddenly a naked woman or maybe the shadow of one appeared to run straight to the gate, which I had thought impossible to pass. I don’t know if she got through. It was difficult to judge from that distance. My attention from the woman was diverted to horrible screams of women crying for help, coming from the building. I thought that it would have been better for them to have been murdered like us. Finally the screaming ceased.
All of a sudden I heard a voice from the grave, "Mommy, Mommy!" and a few other words. It was too difficult to understand because of the howling wind. I wanted to answer but I was afraid. It was completely dark by now, probably about seven o’clock or later. My attention was alerted to a blazing fire that broke out near the guard post. The fire was spreading towards the hut where our clothes were piled up. Afterwards I found out that a group of youngsters revolted there. (2) The fire frightened me. I thought they had decided to burn the bodies. I was horrified of being burnt alive. Terrified, I stroked my daughter’s head. I was hesitant to kiss her because the blood and naked bodies stupefied me. I removed the fir branches, leaped over the pile of bodies and dashed towards the woods. After crawling dozens of meters on hands and knees I met up with two other naked women
I joined them. Without realizing what I was doing, I touched them with my hands and asked if they were alive. They answered me and in disbelief I started caressing them. We could not dawdle because of the proximity of our location to the catastrophe. We decided to go towards Malinki, the nearest village. I remembered that I still had my money and I told my companions, "don’t worry, I have money to get clothes!" They asked me how I managed, and I showed them that paper bills are not hard to hide.
We could not lose time and crawled quickly to the first cabin. An old man and woman lived there in one room. They were shocked and crossed themselves at the sight of three naked women. The old lady threw a faded old dress and tattered pants at us and then chased us out in fear that the Ukrainians would punish them for helping us. I evaded her and went to the kitchen in order to warm up a little but the old woman was adamant to throw us out. One of my friends grabbed an old curtain and draped it over her body. When we got outside I tore a piece of the curtain to partially cover my body. We entered another cabin and asked for warm water to wash our bloodstained bodies. They gave us water, and I got a shirt because I was still without clothes. We each were given a slice of bread and again we had to leave. We hurried to another cabin and a young girl threw us a simple skirt and ordered us out. We decided not to go to more cabins that night. It was late and we searched for a straw pile to hide in. We indeed found one and climbed in to hide for the night. The wind penetrated and the hay did not warm us a bit. At first light we heard the farmer’s steps near the stack. A woman came out of the cabin to scatter grain for the chickens. It seemed to be very early in the morning. My friend Rozika jumped out of her hiding place and entered the cabin to beg for some clothes. We were all chased away; Rozika ran so fast that we lost complete sight of her. We continued on our own, choosing to go by way of swamps. We were in mud up to our knees until we reached the other side of the village. A woman stopped us and asked, "which of you has money? Come with me!" I was afraid to acknowledge, but when she told me that our third friend was sitting in her house, I went with her. Rozika arranged with her that we would get lodgings for two days and that she would bring us clothes. We received an old summer coat. Tusia, my other friend, put it on. I gave the woman a 1000 zloty, and for this money she was to bring us another one. There was another woman with her who went out and came back later saying that we had to leave immediately because the neighbors saw us when we came. We left quickly, leaving the 1000zloty for the rags. We went onto the next village, Poniatowa. However we were unable to enter the village and had to continue to the woods. We found piles of leaves and dry branches that the farmers use fore firewood. We were freezing cold and climbed into the piles, which served as haven from the cold and prying eyes. In the morning, while still inside the piles, we heard the approaching voices of a farmer and his wife. We came up to them and asked for food and clothes. He was an honest man and agreed to bring us rags and warm milk. He returned in no time with the promised rags, old torn sandals, a can of warm milk and bread. We attacked the warm milk in order to heat ourselves a little. My friends put on the rags but I, unfortunately, could not wear anything because of my arm. I was dressed in a man’s shirt and the sleeve was stuck to my wound. I had to remove it from time to time because the arm was swollen and painful. I threw a torn coat over myself, covered my feet with rags and shoved them into a dilapidated old man’s shoe. It cost a fortune but I was eternally grateful to the kind man for bringing them to me. That day we continued on our journey; time was sparse and we had to get as far as possible from the camp.
We came across another town that prohibited our entrance. Because of our disheveled appearance we caused a commotion and drew attention to ourselves. Again we spent the night in a mound of straw. In the morning we went to the village. Tusia was still barefoot, and we wanted to find her a pair of sandals and to drink a pot of some hot coffee.
We went to the poorest-looking cabins in order to be able to stay a few hours for a fee. Tusia bought sandals and stockings for each of us. Rozika bought a scarf for me to cover my rags with. We were cheated by one woman who "didn’t have change;" they threatened us and we had to leave quickly. In order to speed up our journey to Warsaw, we decided to skip some of the villages. The villagers were so afraid of Ukrainian retribution that no amount of money could buy us respite in their homes.
We stayed in only one village, Kowali. In its entrance was a store with a saleswoman. Rozika took 500 zlotys from me and approached her. The woman sold us bread and salami and promised to hide us in the silo for a few days, maybe more. As I mentioned earlier, our appearance caused quite a commotion and children started following us. We decided to go in different directions. I found Tusia later. We sat and hid from the children beside a bale of hay; but to our dismay they spotted us and very quickly adults also surrounded us. They threatened to take us to the starosta (county supervisor) or the gendarmes. Pleading and crying I begged them to let us go. Finally after shamelessly and thoroughly searching us (they didn’t find my money), I convinced them to let us remain seated overnight by the haystack. It was raining. I believed that this was the last we were to see of them. After a short while two of the farmers returned and ordered us to follow them to a "safer place." They would not tell us where they were taking us. We followed them a short distance, and I convinced them to let us continue on our own. When they were out of sight we sat down again. It was raining harder now. Tusia wanted to follow the farmers but I refused. Within a short time the farmers returned with their dogs. They brought us bread. They were adamant that we follow them, and having no choice in the matter, we complied. They took us out of the village by a side road and showed us the way we were to continue. I inquired as to the name of the village we were going to but they refused to tell us. Instinctively I knew we must not go there. I was right, for later I found out that the road led straight back to the camp. As soon as they left we sat and waited till their footsteps had faded and the lights were out in the village. It was raining cats and dogs, the wind howled, and we were soaked to our bones. We sat leaning against each other in order to warm ourselves for at least three hours. Later in the silence of night, we returned to the village. In the darkness we found refuge in a bale of straw-covered hay where we lay till daylight came. It was Sunday and we did not want to move about for fear of being discovered. We remained in our hiding place till Monday morning. The idea of searching for Rozika was never brought up; we never saw her again.
On Monday morning we came to a village by the name of Huti. We entered a low cabin where we saw an eleven-year-old girl sorting tobacco leaves. I asked her if it would be all right with her and family if we kept her company for a while. She agreed. Her mother and grandmother returned about an hour later. We apologized for being there. They immediately understood who we were. I offered money to let us stay and rest our swollen wounded feet for a few days. The mother agreed, however her 13-year-old son refused. We had to leave the house and find refuge in the dark. During the day we hid in the woods where the leaf piles gave us some warmth, and at night when it was completely dark we returned to the woman in the cabin. We gave her money to purchase wooden clogs, stockings skirts and scarves and we asked her to cook us some potatoes since we had not eaten warm food in two days. We were to come the next evening, Wednesday, to receive our things. Again we spent the day in the woods. To our delight we found the woman to be honest and indeed she bought us what we asked for. We washed, dressed and ate; then we returned to the leaves in the woods.
My wound was getting worse from day to day and by now my arm was swollen to the fingertips. I had a constant high fever. I was afraid that I had sepsis; because of lack of medication I did not wash or dress my wound. On Thursday morning I decided that I have to see a doctor in Kuzmir. It was dangerous because of the station, which had been destroyed on Friday November 5th (3), but I was adamant to get emergency treatment for my arm. If I would have been told to amputate it, I probably would have poisoned myself—really there was no reason for me to remain alive alone and deformed. A car passed us when we approached Kuzmir. In fear, I backed up and entered a cabin at the side of the road. We lied that we were being transferred from the eastern territories and that I was injured on the way and needing medical treatment in Kuzmir. The farmer’s wife understood that not all was well with us and suggested that we keep away from Kuzmir because at the entrance of the town there is a roadblock, and papers were being checked. She told us to go to Manczaniez. There the fishermen could probably take us across the Wisla..I gave up on the idea of the doctor. In fact I was already incapable of any logical thought. Without hope, we started wandering again.
On our way we met some women carrying baskets as if they were returning from market. I wanted to buy a scarf from one but she refused to sell one to me. I was running a fever. The other woman said, "Tell me ladies, where are you walking from?" and added, "If my sister were here she would certainly be interested in you!"
Upon hearing this we related our story. I grabbed her and asked about her sister. It turned out that her sister was visiting a church in Kuzmir and was due to return shortly. After a lot of pleading, the woman remained with us to wait for her sister. The sister arrived a while later. She burst out crying upon seeing us. She told us that, on Thursday, the miserable day that Poniatowa camp was destroyed, she had arranged to meet one of her pupils. She was to pick her up with her husband and child. On Thursday, she went as usual to the area near the wire fence, but only the thunder of shots met her ears. Death enveloped the entire neighborhood. Because she was so distraught by the death of these people she wanted to help us and she would take us to Warsaw with her. She inquired if we had some money for the trip. I answered that I have enough for the journey. She told us to stay in the woods, so as not to attract the attention of the neighbors. Afterwards she said would bring us warm soup to our hiding place. We were to go to the ditch which crossed the woods and gather firewood in order not to attract attention.
Exhausted we sat down to rest but before long a man also collecting twigs came towards us. We quickly resumed our work but curious as to whether he was a danger to us or not I struck up a conversation with him. It was a warm sunny day. The farmer immediately understood who we were. The village was small and everyone knew each other, so he realized that we were strangers and probably Jewish. He calmed us and told us not to worry and that he would help us. He told us that he himself hid a boy for a long time, by the name of Abraham, from Kuzmir. He was wondering where he had disappeared to lately. He related to us that he knew a woman who smuggled a number of Jews out of the camp to Warsaw. He told us that he would take us to his home overnight and that he would call. According to his description we realized that Maria was the same woman whom we had met earlier. The farmer's sister also came to fetch twigs but he sent her to inform his wife that he would be bringing two Jewesses home. In the evening, Maria came with hot soup. When she saw that we were conversing with the farmer she asked him to take us home with him for the night because her home was too crowded. I was afraid to admit to him that we had met Maria before. At dusk we went to his one roomed hut where he lived with his wife and two children. In spite of the lack of space he kept us with him for two days. At some point we had to relate our story of survival to the farmer and his family. We were very distraught that we had no idea of what awaited us in Warsaw. We were friendless, penniless, and without papers. Stefan consoled us and said that there were rich Jews who could probably help us, and that he knew about relief organizations helping refugees. I laughed that I could not believe that anyone would help us again. On Saturday the gendarmes came to take the forced laborers away, and we had to leave the village quickly. Stefan’s wife gave us clothes, helped us dress, and we were on our way to Kuzmir.
Our first stop was at the doctor’s. I lied to him that some gang in some village attacked us and while I was leaving the house I had been struck by a bullet. The doctor dressed my wound and ordered me to return daily for new dressings, since the arm was so neglected and the infection was spreading quickly. In the meantime the farmer’s wife had finished her errands and bought us bread and salami. Afterwards she took us to her acquaintances for supper, and we were taken later by carriage to the station.
Another little adventure awaited us in the train. Tusia was holding the farmer’s basket. The gendarmes, looking for contraband accosted her and searched the basket. Tusia faltered and lost her composure. The gendarme flashed his flashlight on her and remarked, "My, how you resemble a Jewess!" She turned her head; luck was with her and everything went as planned. We arrived in Warsaw without further misadventures.(4)
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(4) Upon their arrival in Warsaw, they met up with the Polish Resistance who hid them and informed the organization of Jewish resistance of their existence. This organization brought them to safety. [back]
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2003.
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