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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


I started to tell my story from the middle. Now I'll go back to the beginning, before the war started.

My parents were born in Poland. Poland was part of Russia at the time. My father, Mordechai Liss, was born in 1880 in the city of Wielun. My mother's name was Blima. Her maiden name was Schenk. She was born in 1882 in a small village near the town of Boleslawiec called Wojcin. Boleslawiec was about 30 kilometers from Wielun.

In 1906 they married and seven children followed; first was my brother Gavriel, born in September 1909. I was the second, born January 1912, then came my sister Eudal in December 1913, next my brother Wolf, born October 1915, my sisters Fay in May 1917, Yenta in March 1919, and Sara on the Saturday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in September 1923. Between my last two sisters my mother had a still birth.

The size of our family, at that time, wasn't considered large. The apartment we lived in wasn't large either. It was on the ground floor of a two story building owned by a Polish farmer. The house was on one of the town's main streets. We lived in the front half of the ground floor, and the farmer's family lived in the back. Upstairs lived a single man who worked in the local school. In the back yard the farmer kept some of his farm animals. Our apartment had three rooms. They were very large rooms. Two we used to live in and one, the front one, was for my father's business. At night some sewing machines were moved aside, and a bed was put out for my two brothers.

My father's business was cap making. He had a combination work shop and store. Some of his merchandise was also sold to other stores in other towns. A lot of the caps were made to order as part of uniforms for fraternal organizations, the military, police and firemen.

As the other children grew up they went into the business to help my father. As the oldest daughter my job was in the house, mostly to care for my younger brother and sisters as my mother went to run the store part of the business. My father also employed some salesmen to help sell the caps in other towns.

Life was slow and comfortable in a small town. Boleslawiec had about two dozen paved streets. At the edge of town was a river called the Prosna. The Prosna flowed into the Warta, and the Warta into the Oder. In the summer the whole town went swimming in the Prosna.

At various times in the town's history, like the rest of Poland, it had been controlled at different times by each of the neighboring countries. In medieval times it had been the capitol of a Polish kingdom. Outside of town there still stood the ruins of the king's castle. The town took it's name from the king who built that castle. But in 1939 it was just a small town on the western edge of Poland just a kilometer from the German border.

I remember growing up in Boleslawiec very happy. The town had about 500 families, with about 2500 people. Jews made up about a quarter of the population. There weren't many of the problems between the Jews and the Christians that there were in the larger cities. We lived and traded together in peace.

There were some Poles in our town who were openly anti-Semitic, but very few. One of the better known ones was the brother of the farmer in whose house we lived.

The farmer's family and ours were close. Their name was Chmielewski. Mrs. Chmielewski treated me and my brothers and sisters as her own.

Mr. Chmielewski, whose first name was Ignash, had a brother named Antoush. They built their houses next to each other, separated by a large yard. The yard was closed off from the street by a gate.

Antoush Chmielewski was both, a Polish patriot and an anti-Semite. In our town, among the Poles, he was only remembered for his patriotism. I don't remember him much, since he died when I was young. I only remember stories about him.

On the other side of Antoush Chmielewski house, away from his brother's, was the house of the town's rabbi. The rabbi's house was also the yeshiva or Hebrew school. On the wall of Antoush's house, facing the rabbi's, he constructed a large cross which he painted red. It couldn't be seen from the street, only from the rabbi's house.

The rabbi told how one morning he greeted Antoush. The rabbi said, "Good morning, neighbor." Antoush answered, "We shall not be neighbors long. Either you will soon move away, or I will. But I will not allow this situation to go on much longer." And soon after that Antoush died. I was six years old, in 1918, when the world war ended and the new Polish state was being created.

To the west of our town was a forest that on one side bordered the town and on the other side bordered Germany. Antoush Chmielewski and some other men went to the game warden of the forest and demanded some documents concerning the forest. They wanted to make sure the forest became part of the new Poland. The warden refused and shots were fired. I was standing out in front of the house when the wagon with Antoush's body was brought back to town. The man driving the wagon told me to run inside and open the gate to the yard. I did and watched as they brought his body inside. There was a lot of crying and wailing in the two Chmielewski house holds.

Two weeks before Passover, in 1937, I married Alter Goldrat. At first my father was against our getting married. He said that Alter was poor, but we persisted and he gave in. Alter was my first cousin. Our mothers were sisters. It was a small wedding, just for the family. We moved into an apartment across the street from my parents.

My husband's real name was Ben-Zion. As a child he was sickly, and his mother followed an old superstition of renaming him Alter, which meant old. It was believed that by renaming a sick child one could fool the angel of death into thinking that he was mistaken. When he came for a child, and learned that he was called Alter, he would think that this could not be the one he was looking for and would leave the child alone. So they called him Alter. The name stayed with him even after he grew up.

On June 16, 1938 we had a child, a daughter. Her Jewish name was Esther Figala. In Polish she was called Falunya. When she first started talking she could not say Falunya. Instead she would say Nunya. So we called her Nunyala. She was a beautiful child.

When my brother Gavriel served in the Polish army he was stationed in Posnan. He liked the city very much, and after his time in the army was over he moved there. A man who had once worked for my father had moved there earlier, and Gavriel had remained good friends with him. My brother went to work for his friend after he moved to Posnan.

Gavriel married a first cousin of ours from Wielun. Her name was Hinda Ruthy Liss. We called her Ruschka. They got married in Wielun in October 1937, about six months after I got married, and they settled in Posnan. They had one daughter named Pearl. My other brother and sisters were still single when the war began.

Alter's business was dealing in live poultry, buying them locally and selling them in the city. He had learned the business from his father. Two or three days before the outbreak of the war Alter returned from Lodz. He said to me, "You can see preparations for war in Lodz. Pack up your things. You're leaving the border area."

First he wanted just me and our daughter to go, but I insisted that we would not leave unless he came too.

Alter's brother Leipush had a small truck. He was in partnership with a few others in a trucking company. Alter made quick arrangements with Leipush to move some of our possessions. Alter, Leipush, Nunyala and myself squeezed into the front seat.

We soon found the main roads impassable. They were clogged with people and their animals leaving the border area just like us. We traveled the smaller roads. Lodz was only 130 kilometers or about 80 miles, but still we could not get there on Wednesday. Near the end of the day we stopped at the house of a relative and spent the night.

Thursday morning we started out again and the roads were even worse. Traveling was very slow even on the side roads. There was no road that wasn't full of people heading for Lodz. It took us all day but finally by sundown we reached the city.

Friday morning the war started.

We stayed at Piotrkowska 85 with a cousin of mine named Seasel Sthiller. Piotrkowska was a main street that ran through the middle of the city. Seasel had a 3 room apartment for her, her husband and their child. But Seasel's mother and 3 sisters and the 3 of us stayed there too. By Friday evening we heard how badly the war was going. The next day Alter's brother, Leipush, came over and told us of what he had seen.

After he left us at my cousin's a group of Polish officers forced him to drive them to the Romanian border. From there they escaped to England. The officers offered to take Leipush along, but he said, "No." He had to return home to his wife and children.

The next day, or maybe even that day, the Germans started bombing Lodz. We all went and stayed in the cellar.

Every day we heard that the Germans were getting closer to Lodz. People started leaving the city any way they could. The women decided that the men should run away. We were sure that the Germans wouldn't do anything to the women and children, but the men might have been in danger. My husband and the other men from the building fled the city. I stayed there with my daughter.

Lodz had a large German population so the city was not badly damaged by the Germans. In a house across the street from my cousin's apartment lived a German family. The day the war started the house looked dark and deserted. But a few days later, when the Germans entered the city, all the lights were on and the house had a very festive air about it.

The Germans entered Lodz and continued their advance into Poland. A few days later my mother and my sisters Yenta and Sara came to my cousin's house in Lodz. Their feet were all blistered from walking.

They had left home the day after I did to take some of the family's valuables to a relative in a nearby village for safekeeping. They spent the night there. Early in the morning they set out for home but were caught on the road when the war started.

My mother told us of their running from the Germans. With my mother and sisters was my younger brother Wolf. About 50 kilometers from home they crossed the river Warta. There the Polish army was going to make a stand. A group of young men got together to join. My brother Wolf was among them. He said he wanted to fight the Germans. My mother pleaded with him not to go but to no avail. My mother and sisters kissed him good-bye and continued running.

The German advance was so fast that by the next day they learned that the Germans were already in the town in front of them. There was no place for them to run to so they turned around and headed for Lodz.

The next day, after my mother came to Lodz, my daughter and I, together with my mother and two sisters, returned home to our town. We left because my cousin's apartment was too crowded, and we had heard nothing from home and were very worried. We felt we had to return home and find out what had happened.

My cousin arranged for one of her neighbors to drive us home, but on the outskirts of the city a group of German soldiers confiscated the car. The neighbor returned to his home, and we started walking to ours.

We walked all day. That night we spent by the side of the road. I remember the weather during those first days and nights of the war as being very beautiful. In the morning we set out again. The day was the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. By midday, Mr. Chmielewski and his wife, the farmers in whose house we lived, drove by in their horse drawn wagon. They had also spent the last few days in Lodz and were heading home to see what had happened. We rode home the rest of the way with them.

The whole way home Mr. Chmielewski complained about the great horse he had lost. As they were leaving Lodz, Mr. Chmielewski caught a cavalry horse that was without a rider. A short while later a group of Germans soldiers confiscated the horse, but he carried on as if he had lost his life's savings. As we neared the house my father approached. I almost didn't recognize him. The Germans had cut off his beard, and in the two weeks I hadn't seen him, he had gotten very old.

He told us of the troubles he had had. By 7:00 in the morning, the day the war broke out, the Germans were already in our town. They forced everyone out of their houses and chased them across the fields into Germany. They threw a hand grenade into almost every house and burned down about half the town.

The Germans kept the townspeople in a field. The Jews were separated out from the other townspeople. The German soldiers stole any valuables the Jews had on them and treated them very harshly. A leading Jew of the town, named Shimsa Russek, was singled out for the harshest treatment. Some of the Poles from our town pointed him out as a rich Jew. He returned home barely alive.

About 8 to 10 days later, after the Germans were already deep into Poland, they let some of the townspeople return home. First they let the women and children go, and a few days later they let the men go too. First the Poles, a little later the Jews. The first to return to our home was my sister Fay and then my father.

In a way we were the lucky ones. My apartment and my father's weren't burned by the Germans. The house of his Polish neighbor was burned, and he just took over my father's apartment while my father was being held by the Germans. My father could do nothing about it. So he and my mother and sisters moved in with me.

My apartment was 2 rooms on the second floor. My father brought over 3 sewing machines and a lot of material. In the apartment where I once lived with my husband and daughter now lived 4 or 5 families. One of my neighbors, a man never considered very smart, also came to live with us. Once I overheard him say that he wished my husband would not come home. He feared that my husband would not let him stay there, and he had nowhere else to go. That's what the war started doing to people, making them wish for another to die so that they wouldn't have to suffer.

Alter was caught on the road by the Germans. For a week they held him in prison and then released him. He returned home 10 days after I did. When he walked into the house there was a lot of hugging and kissing. He looked very bad. He said he prayed day and night that he would see me and his daughter one more time.

As the Polish army retreated in front of the German advance my brother's unit was pulled back to help defend Warsaw. During the defense of the capital, in the town of Otwock, my brother was wounded in the head by shrapnel. He remained in a hospital in Otwock for a few weeks until he recovered. At home we had received no news from him the whole time and feared him dead.

When he was released he went to Lodz. He wanted to find a friend of his and talk him into going to Russia with him, but instead Wolf was talked into going home by some of his relatives. Everyone told him how his mother cried when she thought him dead.

He came home thinking it would only be for a short while, but he never did make it to Russia. As the time passed it became harder and harder for him to leave. My parents came to depend on him so much. Maybe if he had gone to Russia, instead of coming home, he would have survived the war. But at that time who could have imagined what the future held for us.

The beginning of the war was during the High Holy Days. Our synagogue was burned down when the Germans first came into the town. The Jews got together in someone's house to pray, but when the Germans found out they came and dragged the men outside, beat them, and warned them that Jews would be shot if they tried to assemble again. Almost every day after that, new rules were issued for Jews. Jews were not allowed to walk on the sidewalk. Stores were posted with signs saying Jews are not allowed in. All Jews had to wear a yellow Jewish star on their coat whenever they were out in public. All Jews, no matter what age, had to register with a Jewish authority called the Judenrat which meant: Council of Jewish Elders. This way, whenever the Germans needed to assemble Jews for work, they went to the Judenrat and demanded from them as many workers as they needed. The Judenrat had to provide these workers or the town's Jews would suffer even more.

The Judenrat's responsibilities also included the Jewish community's health, welfare needs, food rationing, and housing. Hershel Scurka, one of the leading Jews of our town, was appointed to be the head of the Judenrat. Under him was a man named Moshe Maier Prince. Moshe Maier was a leading Zionist from our district.

The first thing the Judenrat was instructed to do was to collect all the gold, silver and furs that the Jews had. Needless to say they collected very little. It all went into hiding or was given to friendly Christians for safe keeping.

One of the jobs they had the Jews do was remove the large wooden crosses from the streets and roads. All over Poland the Church had put up wooden crosses along the roads. They were heavy crosses. I remember when one had fallen and crushed a young man's foot. His name was Hetush Kohen, and they had to remove his foot.

Also the Jews were assigned to care for the grounds around the main buildings in the town. I remember my sisters going to cut the grass on the market square. The grass grew between the paving stones in the square. My sisters were given spoons to dig out the grass.

Every day it seemed to get worse and worse. Just when we thought all this might end, a new rule would come out and make life even harder. And the rules also made life dangerous. It seemed that all violations of the rules were punishable by death. I remember a women named Leah Froman. She went crazy after watching the Germans execute her son. He was killed for violating one of their rules.

I remember going out for a walk with my husband and daughter on a Friday evening. As we walked a man approached us and slapped my husband in the face. We stood there not knowing what had happened until the man said, "You dumb Jew. Don't you know that you have to salute me?"

My husband said that he didn't know that. The man opened his coat and revealed an SS button on the lapel of his jacket.

After that we were too afraid to go out walking again. My daughter was so frightened by the incident that every time she saw someone in uniform walking down the street she would run home hysterically and yell, "Daddy, hide, a German is coming."

Every day there was more to fear. To earn a living, in normal ways, was denied to Jews. There was rationing of food for everyone, but for Jews the rationing was more severe. Everyone looked for a way to earn a living under these conditions. Our family, in partnership with some other families, started to smuggle soap from Lodz and sell it on the black market. Later, when the Jews of Lodz were put into a closed ghetto, we started to make the soap ourselves.

A neighbor in our apartment building, named Pinkus Holse, would sell the soap throughout the town. Once a Polish townsman was caught with the soap and informed the authorities from whom he had bought it. Two Germans came to Pinkus Holse's apartment. One of the Germans we called the "Shooter". He was called that because for no reason at all he would shoot people.

I remember the "Shooter" as being tall. I don't remember his face. I was too scared to look into the Germans' faces. Most of the time I was too afraid to go out of the apartment. When I had to, and I passed one of them, I always turned my face towards the ground.

From our apartment we were able to hear the Germans beating and questioning Pinkus. We were very frightened because in the middle of our apartment we had a large box of soap. There was no place in the apartment to hide that large a box. After a while, Pinkus told the Germans that he got the soap from a man named Itzhak Moshe Goldrat. Itzhak Moshe was one of Alter's brothers. Up until the day before he was also living in the apartment with us. He had just moved to another apartment building.

The Germans came to our apartment. I ran around trying to hide the soap, but there was no time or place to hide it all. My father stayed calm as he answered the door. I grabbed my daughter and held on to her as I shook like a leaf. The Germans were a very clean people. When my father opened the door they saw that the floor had just been cleaned and waxed so they didn't enter the apartment. They asked if his name was Goldrat. He said, "No," and showed them papers that his name was Liss. My father told them that Goldrat had moved out, and was now living with a family named Verva.

It was a miracle that we cleaned and waxed the floor that morning. Had the Germans come in they certainly would have seen the box of soap, and that would have cost us our lives. It was also a miracle that Itzhak Moshe had moved out of the apartment.

The Germans went to where my brother-in-law was living. We had gotten word to him about what was happening so he went into hiding. The Germans searched his apartment, found nothing, but left word that he was wanted for questioning at the police station.

We knew Itzhak Moshe would have to turn himself in. If he did not, and was caught, he would be killed outright. We put some money together and bribed one of the Polish officials. A few days later my brother-in-law went to the police station, but by then everything had been taken care of.

Something happened that I will never forget. In our town lived a Jew named Smeal Prince. He was a widower with 5 children. His wife had died just before the war. He had a large house and he rented part of it out to help him get some money. The woman he rented it to was a Christian and the wife of a Polish officer who had escaped to England with part of the Polish army.

The mayor of our town was a Pole appointed by the Germans. We called the mayor Motele. Motele was the name of a rowdy young man who used to live in our town.

One day the mayor, his secretary, and the head of the post office tried to get into the woman's apartment. She barricaded the door so they couldn't get in. They went into Smeal Prince's part of the house, pushed a dresser aside, and forced open a door that led into her apartment.

The next day the woman went to the Germans to file rape charges against the mayor and the other two men. As a witness she gave the name of Smeal Prince and his oldest son, Kupple. The next day the German we called the "Shooter" came to Smeal Prince's house, took him and his son to the outskirts of town, and shot them both. So with no more witnesses against the 3 men the case was dropped.

The Germans picked on religious Jews the most. Once Alter was stopped outside of town by two German soldiers. They were stationed in our town as policemen. Both Germans knew Alter. It was Friday and he was carrying two chickens he had just purchased for the Sabbath. The Germans made Alter cut off the chicken's heads. They knew that by killing the chickens that way it would make them non-kosher. They told Alter to take the chickens home and warned him that he had better eat them. Instead Alter sold the two chickens to a neighbor and bought two others and had the kosher butcher kill them.

The next day, during our Sabbath meal, the two Germans came to our apartment. They demanded to see the chickens. We showed them the chickens we were eating and one of them said to the other, "They're eating them. See, they're eating them."

They both laughed as they left the apartment. Only when we were sure they could not hear us did we break into laughter ourselves.

Others who were caught with contraband weren't as lucky as we were. I remember a young man named Lefkowitz. He was in a work camp, and he wrote his parents asking them to send him some silk stockings to trade with. His parents did so, but the Germans inspected the package and found the stockings. The young man was hanged for it.

Another young man from our town, named Prince, was killed as he worked as a forced laborer in a field. He was picking vegetables and tried to hide a carrot for himself. He was spotted by a German guard and shot on the spot.

The news of the war was bad for us. Our only hope was in a German defeat somewhere, but at that time they were unbeatable and our troubles seemed endless.

Late in 1941 the Germans confiscated our apartment. It was one of the larger apartments in the building. Too large for Jews they said, so we were forced to take a smaller one in the same building. It was so small that at night most of us had to go to sleep in the attics of some of our neighbors' houses. There was just enough room for the older people to sleep there and to do some cooking. We would get together there only during the day and to have our meals.

Every few weeks the Germans would order the Judenrat to assemble a certain number of Jews in the market square to be sent to labor camp. At first it was mostly the young single men who were ordered assembled. Later the young woman and married men went too.

In 1940 and early 1941 the Germans started setting up ghettos for the Jews in the larger cities. Lodz was the first, followed by Warsaw. In the small towns like ours there were no ghettos. Instead the Judenrat had to supply a certain number of Jews, demanded periodically by the Germans, to be sent to a labor camp. By 1942 they were also assembling Jewish families for what they said was "resettlement" to the east. It didn't take long to learn that "resettlement" meant concentration camp.

In some cities and towns the first Jews assembled by the Judenrat were the poor people. The rich and the influential being able to bribe someone into letting them stay, at least, a little longer. But this did not happen in our town. The men who ran our Judenrat were very honorable. In fact among the first Jews to be sent to labor camp were the two sons of Mosha Maier Prince, the man who was the second in charge of the Judenrat. Also a young man named Kuple Miller was one of the first to go. His family was one of the town's wealthiest.

Since my father was a hat maker the Germans ordered him to continue making hats, but now he was working for them. Whenever an assembly was called, my father would go to the Germans and plead with them not to take my younger brother Wolf. Since he was getting older and his eyesight was getting worse he said he needed his son to help him. Each time he went to plead they would let my brother remain in the town.

This went on for about a year. One day word got back to us about an elderly neighbor who had died in a labor camp. My brother got very mad at my father. He said for my father not to go to plead with the Germans on his behalf anymore. He was ashamed that he was still at home while others, older than him, were suffering and dying in the camps.

It wasn't long after that that another assembly was ordered. My brother was the first to go. Also my husband and two youngest sisters, Yenta and Sara, and a number of my cousins were also taken. That was on the 15th of May, 1942. First they were taken to Wielun, the district capitol, then the men went to a camp near Posnan. My sisters and the other women were sent to a camp called Inowroclaw, which was 100 kilometers from Posnan.

A week or two later, one of my cousins returned from the camp near Posnan. He and a group of 5 other young men had escaped. He said that Wolf was with another group of six men that were also going to escape, and that Wolf would be home soon. We even received a letter from my brother that he posted during his escape, but he never came home. After the war I learned that his group was caught by the Germans, and all of them were hung. By the time we got his letter he was already dead. The same day they took away my brother they also took away my husband. Every time my father went to plead for my brother I also went to bribe the mayor so that Alter would not be taken.

Whenever an assembly of Jews was called for I would make Alter go into hiding and take something of value that I had to the mayor's office. Once I gave away a set of expensive drapes. Once a gold watch. I had a large collection of porcelain, that I had been collecting from before the war, and piece by piece I gave it away.

Once my husband complained that when the war ended we'd be paupers since I was giving everything away. But I didn't care, I just didn't want him taken away.

On the day they took Alter away I was very sick. I had a temperature of 103. Alter took me to the doctor, and he left me there with our child. As he said good-bye, he told me he feared that if he didn't go they might take the whole family. So it was better that he went by himself. Again I pleaded with him to hide, but he did not listen.

It was the last time I saw him.

The next day I arranged, with a Christian who did business with Alter, to deliver some money to a cousin of mine in Wielun. I wanted my cousin to use the money to rescue Alter. Two days went by, and I heard that his group was still being held in Wielun. I had heard nothing from my cousin so I decided to go to Wielun myself.

Wielun was 30 kilometers from my home town. I joined a group of women going to Wielun also trying to rescue their husbands or sons. In a small village on the road to Wielun we were caught by some Germans who recognized us as Jewish. It was against the law for a Jew to travel without a police permit, but all they did was send us back to our town. They warned us that if any of us were caught again we would be sent to a concentration camp.

The next day I removed the star from my coat and set out for Wielun, by myself, but by a different route.

It was a five hour walk to Wielun. I came into the city around noon time. I learned that less than an hour before I got there the group of Jews, from my town, was taken out of the city. I couldn't find out where they were taken so I went to my cousin's house. When I asked him what had happened to the money I sent, he went pale. He said he thought the money was from his sister. Her husband was also in the same group with Alter. He thought he was to rescue his sister's husband, which is what he did.

His sister was Seasel Sthiller, in whose apartment in Lodz I stayed at the start of the war. Seasel and her family had moved back to Boleslawiec to avoid having to move into the ghetto when it was being established in Lodz.

I returned home very upset and broken. There was nothing more I could do.

A month later I received a letter from Alter from labor camp. I wrote back telling him about the attempted rescue in Wielun. He wrote a very angry letter to my cousin accusing him of knowingly using the money to rescue his brother-in-law instead of him. I was told that after my cousin read the letter he burned it so no one else could see it.

Fate works in strange ways. Seasel's husband, rescued instead of my husband, came home. Three months later during the last roundups of Jews, he, Seasel, and their child were taken . The transport they were on, took them straight to their deaths. Had Alter come home I never would have gone into hiding. Instead of the Sthillers, Alter, myself and Nunyala would have been on that transport.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.