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Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14

My Mother's Journey
Through the Fire


We were part of a great flood of refugees moving every which way. Most of the people were going into Germany. We learned that the Russians and Poles were expelling great numbers of German civilians from Poland. We progressed very slowly. It was like moving against the tide.

The first day out of Neustadt we traveled along the road riding in our wagon. A group of young Russian soldiers came up along side of us. They were riding on bicycles. They started propositioning us, but we ignored them. Then one of them grabbed me and tried to pull me off the wagon. The other girls immediately grabbed me and held on. A few seconds later the soldier gave up when he saw a car approach. I guess he was afraid it might have been someone important. Then he and the other soldiers rode away laughing.

Near the end of the day we were stopped by another group of Russian soldiers. They told us that they needed our horse and wagon and were going to confiscate them. We told them our story and how a Russian officer had given us the wagon. But they didn't listen. They gave us a few minutes to get our belongings. Then we continued our journey on foot.

When night fell we walked into a house by the side of the road. The house was empty. We found some potatoes and oil. We cooked some potato pancakes. In the middle of the night I got very sick. I had the runs all night. In the morning I could not travel. Sonya went out and found a Russian and got some rice from him. She made me eat the rice, and by the end of the day I felt a lot better. The next day I was well enough to travel, and we again set out for home.

Each night we stopped in a house along the road. Some were occupied, and some were not. The people in the occupied ones let us spend the night, and some fed us in the morning. At each house we got advice on which roads to take back to Poland. The most direct way was to go through Berlin, but people cautioned us against going that way since there was a lot of destruction. There was also a typhus epidemic in Berlin at the time because of the amount of unburied dead. At one house the owner prepared a map of side roads for us to follow so we could avoid Berlin.

Some houses we came into were full of people. There were many refugees on the road, and some houses by the road were packed with people seeking shelter for the night. In one house there were people sleeping all over the floor. It was that crowded. Among them were a group of Polish soldiers. We were afraid they would try to molest us during the night. We had blankets with us, so I told the girls to sleep two together wrapped in their blankets. I told them to wrap their arms around each other and hold each other tightly. Since we still had short hair, it would look like we were lovers sleeping together. This way it was less likely we would be disturbed. Many times that is how we got through the night safely.

The night was the scariest time. We always prayed to get through the night. In the empty houses we were afraid of someone coming in during the night. In the houses we shared with others we

A few nights after we left Neustadt we were in a house with a group of other refugees. One of them had a radio. An announcement came over the radio that the war was over. The Germans had surrendered. We were puzzled when we heard the news because we thought the war was already over by the time we were freed. We didn't realize that there was still fighting going on. There was a great deal of celebration going on that night on the road and in the houses. Strangers hugged and kissed. Drinks were passed around. Between the noise and the singing we didn't sleep at all that night.

The next day we ran into a group of Russian soldiers. They stopped to talk to us. They asked us where we were coming from and where we were going. At first we were cautious because they asked us if we were Jewish. When we found out that they too were Jewish, which I didn't believe until they started talking Yiddish, our happiness was overwhelming. We had not seen many Jews along the way, and to meet Jewish soldiers was very satisfying indeed.

They told us it was the Jewish holiday of Shavuos. We didn't know it was a holiday then. We had lost track of the dates of the Jewish holidays. The soldiers had some cheesecake, which was traditional on Shavuos, and they shared it with us. We spent the whole day, and most of the night, talking with them about the war. The next day they had to go where they were assigned, and we continued on our way home.

Along the way we learned that a hundred kilometers before Poznan a train was running to Poznan. Also, from Poznan another train was running all the way to Lodz. So we headed toward the train to Poznan.

After we boarded the train and we were on the way, a group of Polish soldiers came over to us. We were told that we were needed for a work group. They were rounding up people to help clear the rubble. We were told that the work was mandatory.

We refused to go with them. We told them we were just released from a labor camp and were going home. The soldiers grabbed us by the arms and pulled us out of our seats. Sonya ran into another car and saw a group of Russian officers standing nearby. She ran over to them and pleaded with them to help us. She told the Russians where we had come from and that the Poles now wanted to press us into a work gang. One of the officers came over and told the Poles to let us go. At first the Poles argued but backed down when the Russian threatened to get some of his friends from the other car.

I later found out that those Poles were AK, and the Russian knew that our lives would be in danger in the AK's hands. So once again we were liberated by the Russians.

We continued on the train for the rest of the journey to Poznan. After walking for 4 weeks across Germany, it was good to travel sitting down.

On the train I met a young Jewish man. As we approached Poznan he said to me that he had once run away from a camp nearby. He talked about his escape, which he did after another group of men was hung because they were caught escaping. Listening to him I had a feeling about my brother Wolf.

I asked him if he knew the men who were hung. He said he knew them all.

I said, "Was one of the men Wolf Liss?"

He said, "Yes, did you know him?"

I said, "He was my brother. Until now I thought he was still alive."

The train let us off on the outskirts of Poznan. We had to walk to the other side of the city to catch the train to Lodz. Poznan did not seem to have much damage or it had mostly been cleaned up by the time of our arrival. I only saw a few buildings that showed any damage.

My heart danced as we walked through the streets. Every street was full of German soldiers, now prisoners. Thousands and thousands of them were either sitting or were lined up in the streets. They were being guarded by Russian soldiers. At every intersection we crossed we would look down the street in both directions. There was hardly a street that wasn't full of these Germans. They were waiting their turns to be loaded onto trains. In closed box cars they were taken to Russia to be used as slave labor. Very few of them would survive to return to Germany.

At the end of the day we boarded a train to Lodz. The next morning we arrived in Lodz. In Lodz, the girls I traveled with made arrangements to go their separate ways home. We said our good-byes with tears and with promises to write to one another.

I went to my cousin's apartment hoping someone would be there. It was the same apartment I stayed in at the start of the war. I came up to her apartment and knocked on the door. It was answered by my brother-in-law, Leipush. We were overcome with joy at seeing each other. Also in the apartment was my other brother-in-law, Itzhak Moshe. I learned from them that some other relatives and friends had also returned. Some had already gone on to Boleslawiec.

We spent the day talking about what had happened to us. My brothers-in-law had not heard anything about Alter. Nor had they heard about anyone else in my family. They wanted me to stay with them in Lodz, but I could not. I had to return home right away and see if anyone else came back. The next morning I took the train to my home town.

I returned to Boleslawiec in the beginning of June, almost 3 years after I had gone into hiding. The town looked the same. There was no war damage except for the fire set by the Germans at the start of the war. It seemed like a lifetime ago.

I returned to the house that I grew up in to see the Mileskoys. When Mrs. Mileskoy saw me she cried and hugged me. We talked for awhile. I learned that a few of the others who had returned were all staying together at the same house in the town.

The house had belonged to a widow named Kohn. We used to call her the Gailtis Kohn because her husband had had a yellow beard. Gail means yellow in Yiddish. Her four sons had survived the war. She had not. They were all there. Also there was my friend from Auschwitz, Rose Etta; two of my cousins, Yanta and Jizka Krzepizka, who I had seen briefly in Auschwitz; and a young man from our town named Kupple Miller. I went to see them, and they invited me to stay there too.

I went to the apartment we had lived in before I went into hiding, and before my parents were taken away. The Polish woman who lived there now, let me in and told me that I have there. But I saw things that were, like the bed spreads and curtains. I mentioned them, and she said that they were the only things of mine, and I could take them if I wanted. I saw other things, but they weren't worth the trouble, so I just said, "No," and left.

Outside the building a Pole, who I knew to be a good man, came over to me. He greeted me and told me to come to his apartment. He had a number of my things. He told me how the Germans auctioned off the Jewish belongings after the Jews were taken from the town. He had some furniture from my apartment. He also had some pictures that he found in the furniture that he had saved. The pictures he gave me, but the furniture he offered to sell back to me for the amount he paid. I didn't have any money or any place to put the furniture, so I told him that I could not buy them back, but I thanked him for the pictures. They were more precious to me than the furniture.

I found other Poles with other items from my family. Small items some gave back to me. One Pole I went to see had my father's sewing machines. He was the town's tailor. When I came to his house he frightened me so much I thought he was going to kill me. He asked me if I planned to stay in the town. There was so much hatred in his eyes I right away said, "No." I guess he was afraid I would demand he return the machines, and he would have to give them to me. I left as quickly as I could. I felt lucky he let me leave his house alive. I stopped looking for anything else.

I returned on a Thursday, and on the following Monday or Tuesday my sister Fay came home. She had first come to Czestochowa. There she met a young man from our town who told her of my return. I did not know that she was alive until I saw her.

As soon as she came home she wanted me to go with her to Lodz, to meet the man she wanted to marry. His name was Simon Susskind. They had met in the Lager Fay had worked in. He had gone to his hometown to learn the fate of his family. They had arranged to meet in Lodz in a few days.

We returned to Lodz, to the apartment of my brother-in-law Leipush. There I met my future brother-in-law, Simon.

Simon's father had been a big industrialist in their home town of Bielitz. They owned a factory for weaving wool cloth. When the Germans first came into the town they took a number of its leading citizens as hostages. Simon was one of them.

art of the early labor brigades that built some of the concentration and work camps, first in Poland and later in Germany. He was part of the labor that built Auschwitz.

Simon couldn't stay in Poland. In Bielitz the Russians were arresting the families of the wealthier citizens. The Russians were looking for him. He had been warned just in time and left the city. He was afraid that if he stayed in Poland they would find him and arrest him.

For many returning Polish Jews there were problems. Many of us were talking about leaving. We weren't welcome back, and it was beginning to feel unsafe for us.

Fay and Simon decided to go to Czechoslovakia. Simon had been married before the war. His wife died early in the war in one of the camps. Her family was from Moravska Ostrava, a city in Czechoslovakia just across the Polish border. They were going to see if anybody from his wife's family had returned.

The western part of Czechoslovakia was under American administration at the time. Since Simon's wife was Czech he knew he could get a Czech identification card for himself. Once they got married, Fay would also have Czech papers. They planned to arrange papers for me too. Fay was going to return for me when they had those papers.

The next day Fay and Simon left for Czechoslovakia.

Nobody else from my family had returned home. I decided to travel to Warsaw and learn the fate of my daughter. I had heard that in Warsaw there was a Jewish agency that was helping people find other members of their families.

In every city, where there was a Jewish community, there was a Jewish agency. Every Jewish agency had lists. There were lists of survivors, lists of transports, lists of where the inmates from one camp went when the camps were moved. There was information on who returned home, and messages for those who still might come home.

People just traveled from city to city looking at lists and bringing one list from one place to another. Any word about a member of one's family, or even a word about someone who might have known something about them, would send people off looking for that person or that list.

Once on a train I met a group of young men with a list of survivors from the camp they had been in. On their list I saw the name of Lunik Yakobovich. These men knew Lunik and that he had come from Boleslawiec. They told me that Lunik was now in Germany. I told them that Lunik's sister, Estarka, was alive and living with the Polish family that hid her during the war. She was not far from where we were. I told them that Estarka thought Lunik dead. One of the young men left the train and traveled to where Estarka was. He brought her the news about her brother and made arrangements for her to go to him in Germany.

Though there was some happy stories like Estarka's and Lunik's most of the searching was in vain or ended in sadness.

Itzhak Moshe came with me to Warsaw. When we got there we made our way to the Jewish agency in Praga. Praga was across the river from Warsaw. Warsaw was greatly damaged by the war. The ghetto was all rubble, not a building standing.

The Jewish agency building was full of people milling about inside and out. As soon as I walked in I saw Alla Dirchwald. We were thrilled to find each other alive. We sat and told each other what had happened to us since we had last seen each other. She was also there looking for information about her family.

After waiting a few hours I met with a man who was to help me find my daughter. He took down the information about the dates when she was taken out of Warsaw. He went and looked through lists that the Russians had confiscated from the Germans. The Germans were very thorough and listed everything. The lists he looked through gave the dates and the destination of all the trains that took the Jews out of the ghetto.

The trains that left Warsaw on the dates of the Aktion in January 1943 all went to Treblinka. He sadly told me that I didn't need to look any further. The records showed that almost all the people from those trains went directly into the gas chambers, especially the children.

I can't say I was surprised at the news, but still I had hoped for a miracle. And that hope had kept me going many times. I broke down and cried. Alla stayed with me till I was better.

Itzhak Moshe and I spent the rest of the day at the agency. We looked through records hoping to find information about any other members of our families, but we found nothing. In the evening we took a train back to Lodz. The next day I returned to Boleslawiec.

A few days after I returned from Warsaw, Fay returned from Czechoslovakia with papers for me. Together we left Poland for the last time. I had intended to return with papers for my two cousins, but I didn't make it in time.

It took me a few weeks after I got to Czechoslovakia to get papers for my cousins. By then the Polish-Czech border had been sealed. With our Czech papers it would be no problem returning to Czechoslovakia. The problem was getting into Poland. I had no identification that said I was a Pole.

The mail wasn't working very well yet. It was too undependable. With the danger to the Jews in Poland getting worse, I had to get my cousins out as fast as I could. Also I wanted to leave word with someone in case my husband returned. I had to tell someone where I was so that he could find me. I knew that a lot of survivors were still in hospitals. Every day I would hear of another who had returned home. I prayed that the next one would be Alter.

Rose Etta and my two cousins tried to leave Poland and come to where I was in Czechoslovakia. They were arrested at the border by the Polish guards and spent a few days in jail. When they were released they were sent back to Boleslawiec. Without proper papers they could not get out of Poland.

We were staying in Moravska Ostrava, which was along the Polish border. I found out that a group of workers came every day from Poland to work in Moravska Ostrava. Each evening, in a group, they would return to Poland. I found out where the workers crossed the border. I waited along the road leading to the border crossing. As the group of workers came down the road I stepped in line with them and walked up to the check point.

A young border guard was checking everybody's papers. When he got to me I handed him my Czech papers. He asked me where I was going. I told him that in the town where these men came from lived a man who had been in a concentration camp with my husband. My husband hadn't returned, and I was going to find out what this man knew about him.

The guard gave me back my papers and told me that I could not go across. He said that I was Jewish and that it would be too dangerous for me in Poland. I pleaded with him to let me go. He just kept saying, "No."

I wouldn't leave him alone. I started crying. Finally, he took his rifle off of his shoulder and pointed it at me. He screamed at me, "God in heaven. Don't you understand? The Poles will kill you. Go back. I will never let you pass."

I had no choice. I returned to where Fay and Simon were staying.

Weeks later while traveling on a train from Frankfurt to Wiesbaden in Germany, I read of an attack on Jews in Boleslawiec. The date of the attack was the day after I tried to cross into Poland.

The story told of an attack by a group of Poles on a house that Jews were staying in. It was the Kohn's house. There they killed all of its inhabitants. The Poles that did the killing were members of the AK. The story listed the names of the 8 people killed. They were three of the Kohn brothers, Mosha Rusick, Maier Markowitz, Rose Etta and my two cousins.

Maier Markowitz had survived the war hiding out in Czestochowa with his wife and child. His family was still in Czestochowa as he returned to Boleslawiec to collect some of their possessions. He was staying at the Kohn's house the day of the attack.

A week earlier two of the widow Kohn's sons had gone to Germany to find a place for the family to stay. One of them had returned home the day before the attack with travel papers for his other two brothers. They were in middle of packing to leave as the AK arrived.

Had I gotten across the border the day I tried to cross, I, too, would have been in that house when the AK came.

Months later, in Germany, I met Kupple Miller. He gave me 4 photos that the Russians had taken of the murdered Jews. The day before the killings Kupple, who had also been staying at the Kohn's house, went to a nearby village to collect some money that was owed to his family. He spent the night in the village and returned to Boleslawiec in the morning. He arrived shortly after the attack took place. Promised protection by the Russians, he remained to identify and bury the dead. As soon as that was done he left Poland for good.

We didn't remain long in Moravska Ostrava. Fay and Simon got married, and then we moved on to Prague.

Prague was a beautiful city. I spent a lot of time walking around. The city was full of statues and museums. The High Holy days came and we went to synagogue. I started living again.

As camp survivors we were helped by the government and other organizations. One helped us go to Marrainbad, a world famous health resort, for 4 weeks.

The Allies agreed among themselves that Russia alone would occupy Czechoslovakia. Until then, the Americans administered the western part with the Russians administering the east.

Simon had some acquaintances in the newly formed Czech army. They advised him to leave with the Americans. They knew that the government under the Russians would be Communist. With Simon's background he would have a problem. Simon's first wife had a cousin living in America. With some family in America Simon would be able to apply for immigration.

We left Czechoslovakia in November as the Americans were pulling out. We were going to the American zone in Germany. Fay was pregnant so she stayed in the apartment in Prague while Simon and I went to Germany. After we got a place there, Simon would return for Fay. Also, Fay stayed in Prague in case we could not get across the border, we would still have a place to return to.

At the border checkpoint a Czech officer looked through our suitcases and our papers. He said the papers were not proper, and by right we should not be allowed to leave. He guessed why we were leaving and said he would help us. He got a soldier and told him to lead us across the border so we could avoid the guards and the checkpoint on the German side. The soldier led us through some woods for about an hour, until we could see a town. He pointed the town out to us and said it was called Tirschenreuth. It was in Germany. The soldier turned around and went back to Czechoslovakia.

As soon as Simon and I entered the town we stopped to rest. I saw a woman walking toward us. When she got close I recognized her as Figua Prince from my home town. I called her name, and she looked at me for a moment wondering who I was. Then she recognized me and came running, calling my name out loud. We hugged and kissed.

Figua Prince took us to her apartment where we stayed the night talking about what had happened to each of us. She told me that Estarka Yackabovich was nearby in a city called Hof. The next day we went to Estarka's.

I stayed at Estarka's, in Hof, while Simon went back for Fay. It took them two weeks to get themselves smuggled across the border.

Before we left Prague we made friends with an American officer who was Jewish. When we told him we were leaving for Germany, he told us he was being transferred to Frankfurt. He offered to have some of our things transported to Germany for us. We left six suitcases with him.

From Hof we went to Frankfurt to get our things. Then we moved to Wiesbaden. Simon's mother was from Mannheim, near Wiesbaden. Simon had been there many times before the war and knew the area very well. So we settled there.

In Wiesbaden, the Jewish Agency set up an organization. They settled displaced people who were coming into the American zone. They helped people search for members of their families, and reunited them when they could. They also helped people learn the fate of those who did not return.

The Jewish organization got us proper papers, some money, and gave us an address where we could live.

The address was Reichstrasse 3. It was the home of a former Nazi. The house was damaged during the war by Allied bombing. All the other homes on the street were taken over by the Americans, but not this one. Because of the bomb damage the Americans would not live there.

When we got to the house, the owner would not let us in. We had to threaten him before he gave in. He lived there with his wife and daughter. We divided up the house so we would not have to see each other.

A short while later my brother-in-law, Itzhak Moshe, came to live with us. Leipush was still in the Polish army and would not leave Poland for two more years. I did not see Leipush again until we were in America.

Itzhak Moshe continued to look for Alter. Some information took him to Salzheime, a city, near Frankfurt. There he found a man who was with Alter. He had held Alter in his arms as Alter died just 3 weeks before their liberation.

Through the Jewish organization I also learned what had happened to my parents, my sister Eudel, and most of the Jews from my home town. The fate of my oldest brother Gavriel, I did not learn until 1978. What had happened to his wife and child I still do not know.

In 1978 I took my first trip to Israel. A cousin of mine, who was living in Israel, had met a man who had been in a camp with Gavriel. From him I learned of my brother's death.

Late in 1942, around the time I was trying to get to my brother from Czestochowa, Gavriel, and the man who told the story, escaped from a labor camp. The Germans learned of their escape, and chased them through the forest. The Germans caught up with them at a river. The two men jumped into the river and started swimming across. The Germans stopped at the river bank, and opened fire. Halfway across the river my brother screamed, and stopped swimming. He did not make it across. The other man did. When he got to the other side he looked back for a second, before he continued running. He saw my brother's body being swept down the river.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.