Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7
Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14

My Mother's Journey
Through the Fire


For the next three months I lived in our small apartment with my parents, two sisters, Eudel and Fay, and my daughter. My mother's brother, Uncle Moshe, also lived with us at this time.

My oldest brother, Gavriel, and his family had been living in Posnan when the war started. The Germans sent them and the other Jews of Posnan to the city of Ostrow Lubelski in the east. Ostrow Lubelski was in the district of Lublin near the Russian border. The Lublin district was designated by the Germans as the Jewish district. We were told that in time all Jews would have to settle there.

For a few months before the war started, Eudel was living in Posnan with Gavriel. There she studied making false teeth out of clay. She was always very good at molding things with her hands.

After the war started Eudel came home. Soon she was helping people hide small valuables, such as jewels and gold pieces by burying them in small figurines. She made them out of the same kind of clay she had used to make false teeth.

In the middle of August, the third week in the month of Av, the Germans called the final assembly. The call was for all the rest of the Jews in the town. No Jew was to remain behind. The day before a Christian acquaintance came from the city of Wielun and told me that they were assembling all the Jews from there. I knew that this was the last of the Jews from the entire area. These assemblies were to make the district free of Jews.

In one of Alter's letters from concentration camp he warned me that if there was an assembly I could not get out of I should go into hiding with our daughter. He said that I would be sent to work but that the Germans were killing the children.

Before I left town I tried to get my whole family to go into hiding with me. But my father would not believe that the Germans would kill us. He would say, "They had taken Gavriel and his family into a camp over a year ago, and they were still alive." But I couldn't be sure what the Germans would do, so I wasn't going to take a chance. Especially with the life of my daughter.

I gathered up my Nunyala and a change of clothes for the two of us. I also took all the money I had, about 700 marks. As I was about to run out of the house my mother called me back. "You're leaving so fast," she said. "Please take the time to properly say good-bye, because I feel this maybe the last time I shall ever see you."

With tears running down everyone's cheeks we kissed each other good-bye. As I ran into the street my father ran after me with a kerchief in his hand. He wrapped it around me and kissed me. That was the last I saw of my parents.

For a few years before she moved to Posnan, my sister Eudel had been living at my uncle Moshe's. He was my mother's only brother and didn't have any children. One day he said to my mother, "Blimcha," my mother's name was Blima, but she was called Blimcha, "You have 5 daughters. Why doesn't one of them live with me?"

My sister Eudel heard my uncle, and said that she wanted to go. Since my uncle only lived a few houses away my mother said, "Yes." It hardly seemed like she was gone. She would eat and sleep at my uncle's, but ten times a day she would come home.

During the time my sister lived at my uncle's she also worked at his store. My uncle would buy grain from the farmers from the nearby villages and sell it in the town. My sister would work the scales when the farmers brought the grain. One of the farmers who dealt with my uncle was a Christian named Pannek. He was a very nice man, and he liked my sister because of how honest she was. He always insisted that she work the scales when he did business with my uncle. After the war started he said to her that if she or her family ever had to hide from the Germans they should come to him, and he'd hide them at his farm.

Pannek's farm was about one kilometer from our town. My daughter and I went there to hide. Pannek let us in and made a place for us in the attic of the stall. The stall was across the yard from his house. Pannek was in his fifties. Living with him were his wife and his wife's sister. He also had two children, a son 14 or 15 years old, and a daughter about 20. They were both living at home.

The next day a woman came to Pannek's and told us that the Germans had surrounded the town. They were ordering all the Jews to assemble in the market square. She had met my sister Eudel in a field outside of town. She told my sister to run and hide, but my sister said her parents were home all alone and that she must go back to them. And so my sister returned to the town.

The following day Pannek's sister-in-law went into the town to find out what had happened. She returned and told me that all the Jews were being held in the church, and the Germans were ordering all those Jews still in hiding to come out. My parents and one sister were with the other Jews, but one of my sisters was still hiding in the attic of my neighbor's house. It was my sister Fay. She was sick, and my father took her over to the neighbors. He didn't want her taken by the Germans while she was ill. There were rumors that the Germans were killing the sick right away.

The neighbor who was hiding my sister was very scared and wanted her to either go to the church with the other Jews or go into hiding with me. The next day I paid Pannek's sister-in-law 50 marks to smuggle my sister out of the town and bring her to me.

Pannek's sister-in-law dressed Fay up as a field hand going to work in the fields outside of town. Fay was very sick when she brought her. She was running a fever. When she saw me she started crying and banging her head against the wall. She kept saying that we should go with our parents. That we would not survive anyway. The Germans had put up notices that they would shoot any Jews they found, and they would also shoot any Poles that helped a Jew hide. But I said, "No, we would not walk voluntarily into their hands," and I dragged her up to the attic.

For the next few days the Germans kept the Jews in the church. A few of the Jews who were still in hiding were caught, some had given themselves up. Then all the Jews were taken to Wielun. I had a terrible feeling that the three of us were the only Jews left in the entire district.

Leipush was in the church with the other Jews. After the war he told me about a heated discussion between my father and my Uncle Lewi. Uncle Lewi was my mother's sister's husband.

After hearing what was happening to the Jews caught by the Germans my father wanted to tell the authorities where Fay and I were hiding. He still did not believe that he was going to die. Fortunately, my uncle talked him out of it. Uncle Lewi had a premonition about their fate and begged my father to wait until they knew more about the Germans' plans for them.

From Wielun the able bodied Jews were sent to Lodz, to labor in the ghetto. Leipush and Itzhak Moshe were among them. My sister Eudel could have gone with them but again would not leave my parents. After the war I learned of their fate. My sister, my parents, all my uncles, aunts, their families, and the other Jews from our town were made part of a larger group of Jews from the surrounding towns. On August 22, 1942 that group, almost 10,000 people, were sent to their deaths at a camp called Chelmno. At Chelmno the killing was done by gas vans. The people were loaded into the vans and the back doors sealed. The engine exhaust was directed into the sealed van as it moved.

Fay's illness was getting worse. Late at night I took her into town to see the doctor. The doctor was a Ukraneian named Taran. He was a very fine man. We knocked at his door, and I'm sure we woke him up. He let us in and examined Fay. He gave her some medicine that made her better. He refused to take any money from us saying we would need it more than he would.

As we were leaving, Dr. Taren said, "Go hide in small villages. There you will find less anti-Semitism than in the cities." We thanked him and left.

Later, toward the end of the war, as the Russian army approached our town, some of the townspeople attacked a group of Germans. In revenge the Germans shot and killed the leading citizens. Dr. Taran was among those killed.

Also among the townsmen killed in reprisal with Dr. Taran was the local butcher, Leon Schoch. Leon used to come and visit Pannek, and he spotted us hiding there. He wasn't known as a nice man, but since he hated the Germans, I knew he would not turn us in. In fact he offered to hide us, but I was afraid of him and of what he might do. He once said that he imagined that at the end of the war only he would have a Jewess, since the Germans would have killed off all the rest.

The first Saturday we were there, Pannek invited us to eat with his family in the house. Before that we ate all our meals in the stall's attic. The family tried to make the Sabbath a little nicer for us, but we were so depressed that Fay and I did little else but cry.

Pannek was too scared to hide us near the house during the day. Since a lot of people came to his house he was afraid we would be seen. During the day, when it wasn't raining, he told us to hide in the nearby fields. It was harvest time. The wheat was cut, bundled into stacks, and left standing in the fields to dry. The bundles of wheat gave us a lot of places to hide. We would leave the stall early in the morning. In the evening we would come back to the stall and go hide in the attic.

Once when we were hiding in the field we heard someone coming. We crawled into a stack of wheat. I looked out and saw 2 women walking towards us. It was Mrs. Yakobovich and her daughter, Estarka. Estarka was about 20 years old. They were neighbors of ours before the war.

I called their names. They came over. We hugged and cried. They said they were going to the ghetto. As soon as they got into the ghetto the Germans caught them. First they were held with a group of other Jews. Then the Germans separated out the old people. The young they allowed to remain in the ghetto. As Mrs. Yakobovich was being taken away, she yelled to her daughter to run, to try to get away from the ghetto, and hide. Estarka got out and got to village a few kilometers from our home. The village was in a part of Poland that was German before the First World War. It had been cleared of Jews three years earlier. There she was able to hide out with a Christian family until the end of the war.

While at Pannek's a woman named Mrs. Guren came there looking for a place to hide. She was from our town, and her husband was in the same labor camp as Alter. She was a few years older than me and didn't have anything with her. Pannek would not let her stay, so I gave her 100 marks hoping it would help her. The same thing happened a day later when a Mrs. Salamanovic came there too. She also had to leave, and I gave her some money. I think it was 50 marks. Fay got very angry at me for giving away so much money. She screamed at me that I had a child and didn't know what we'd be facing. She was right, of course, but I had to do something for those women.

In a house next to Pannek lived a Pole who was known to be collaborating with the Germans. At night when we returned from the field we had to walk past this neighbor's yard. He had a dog and when we passed the dog would bark. This was one of the things that frightened Pannek, and every day he got more frightened. One day Pannek said that we would have to leave. He was too afraid to hide us any longer.

The next day I returned to the town to see one of the secretaries who worked in the town's city hall. With the town's Jews gone, one of his jobs now was to dispose of their property. He lived in the house next to mine. From him I hoped to get Polish papers for Fay and myself. I had heard that he arranged for forged papers for a price.

When I got to town I first went to my apartment to see if there was anything left. As I was walking into the building I was spotted by a neighbor. She looked at me but said nothing as she hurried out of the building. I found nothing in the apartment. It had been picked clean. I left and went to the secretary's house. I knocked on his door. As soon as he let me in we saw two policemen run into my apartment building. I knew it was the neighbor who told them of seeing me in the building. The secretary knew that it was me they were looking for.

The secretary made me hide until the police left. If I was caught in his house it would have cost him his life. As soon as they were gone he made me leave. He would not listen for a moment to what I wanted. He just shoved me out the door. I returned to Pannek's empty handed.

Pannek's wife was truly a wonderful human being. She pleaded with her husband to let us stay. After he repeatedly said no, she asked if she could set up a place for us in the barn. The barn was a little ways removed from the house and stall. She told him that she would do all that had to be done for us. That her husband would not even know we were there. But still he said no. So after two weeks of hiding at Pannek's we were sent away.

We went to a village near Wojcin. Wojcin was the town my mother was born in. We went to a family that had done business with my father. In the house lived an old woman with her daughter and son-in-law. The old woman had gone to school with my mother. She asked us why we didn't bring our mother with us. She would have helped her hide too.

We stayed there a short while hiding in their attic. One day two Germans came into their yard. Both the old woman's daughter and I saw them come in. We got very frightened. I was sure that someone had told on us until I saw they had bicycles and one was broken. They stopped to fix it and then went on their way.

We had such a bad fright that a few days later Fay noticed a patch of hair on my head had turned white. The young woman was pregnant then. She had been married for five years and this was going to be her first child. A few days after we had seen the Germans come into the yard she lost the child. It may have been because of the fright she had. The next day the husband came up to the attic and told us we would have to leave. He was very sorry about it, but they felt that they couldn't keep us anymore.

From there we went to another village called Drzdskowitz, to a Christian farmer named Urbonek. My husband knew him from doing business with him and felt he was a good man. My husband wrote that if I had to hide I should go to this man's house, tell him who I was, and he would surely let me hide there.

When I got there I found out that Urbonek was a leader in the village, appointed by the Germans. We came to his house at night. He let us in, gave us some food, and took us up to the attic.

Urbonek was in his middle 20s. He had a wife and some young children. His wife was very scared to have us in the house. We would sometimes hear them arguing about us being there. Since he was working for the Germans some of them would come to the house. Also they had a lot of enemies in the village because of the work they were doing. His wife was afraid of us being found there. It would have cost them their lives if we were.

Once I heard him say to his wife that if he was destined to die, he would, whether he was hiding Jews or not. But his wife prevailed and we were sent away. After the war I found out that he survived the war but was killed by the Poles for collaborating with the Germans.

On one of the days that we were at Urboneks', Nunyala was looking out the attic window. There were some children playing in front of the house. She wanted to go out and play with them. I told her she could not and tried to explain why. But she was still a young child and did not understand. All she knew was that she could not go out and play. She cried and pleaded with me to let her go outside. I still remember her asking me, when she stopped crying, "Mommy, why do I have to be Jewish?"

Many times she asked questions about what was happening to us and why. I can't forget those questions from my child for which I had no answers. Nunyala often talked about us making a big party when we went home, and everyone came home too, especially her father.

Urbonek sent us to his brother in another village, but they were also afraid. As soon as we came to their door Urbonek's sister-in-law started yelling that the village was surrounded, and that the Germans were looking for us. None of this was true, but the woman was hysterical. We could not stay there. They sent us somewhere else.

For a time we were just sent from village to village. A Christian once said to me, "Why do you risk our lives? No Jews will survive anyway."

In one place we came to, as soon as we walked in, the man there said that he was sure we were spotted and made us leave right away. Another place we came to late at night. We were allowed to stay the night but no more. In the morning we had to leave. After a while there was no place for us to go, so we decided we had to go to the Jewish ghetto in Czestochowa.

We went to another village, named Toplin. It was the village in which Alter was born. Toplin was 28 kilometers from Boleslawiec. There we went to a Christian named Antos Krzyzos. He was the same man who took the money to my cousin in Wielun when I tried to rescue my husband.

Antos was in his forties, on the thin side, and of average height. He raised poultry that Alter bought and also did odd jobs for Alter and Leipush.

As soon as we came to his house we told him we only wanted to stay for a short while. We told him of our wanting to get into the ghetto. Antos' family tried talking him out of letting us stay. They were afraid. But he said he would help us and took us up to the attic.

We couldn't just walk into the ghetto. If we were caught outside we would be shot. We had to be smuggled into it. I had a cousin in the ghetto named Rachel Liss. Rachel ran away from Wielun when her husband was taken away to labor camp. I knew that she had ended up in the Czestochowa ghetto. Antos helped me get a letter to her. We were taking a chance writing a letter to someone in the ghetto. If the letter had been read by the Germans we would have been caught, but Antos agreed to take the chance.

In the letter I asked her to find out how we could get into the ghetto. This was in September 1942. It was on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, that we sent the letter. We spent the holiday up in the Krzyzos' attic. Two weeks later a letter came back from my cousin.

My cousin told us to go to the Ponow woods. The Ponow woods were near Wielun. There we would find a man whose name I can't remember now. She said that this man could smuggle us into the ghetto.

The next day we said good-bye to Antos Krzyzos and headed for the Ponow woods. We walked all day until we got to the woods. I remember it was a beautiful day. A number of Poles spotted us for Jews as we traveled there. Some were kind to us; some were not; but none of them turned us in. One told us that just the day before we came there the Germans had finished a large "operation". For 2 weeks they searched the woods for Jews. Over 30 were caught hiding there. The Germans took them all to Wielun where they were all executed.

We came to the man my cousin told us see. He said that he could not get us into the ghetto anymore. Once he used to lead animals into the ghetto to be slaughtered for food. Then he was able to smuggle someone in by dressing them up as a helper. But the Germans stopped letting meat into the ghetto since they started taking Jews out of there. They wanted to make life more uncomfortable so it would be easier to get people to leave. So he was ordered not to come anymore.

A neighbor of his saw us come in. He stood outside the door and overheard us say we wanted to get into the ghetto. He offered to smuggle us in. We paid him about 300 marks, and that evening we went with him into the woods.

He led us around for about 4 hours. Once when I got tired of carrying my daughter and asked to rest he said we could not stop and he carried her for a while. Suddenly, he handed the child back to me and started running. Fay started running after him shouting for him to come back. I said for her to stop calling him and be thankful he just robbed us and didn't harm us as well.

It was dark, and we didn't know where we were so we laid down on the ground to wait for the sunrise. The ground was wet so I laid my daughter on top of me so she wouldn't catch a cold. She had slept through the whole thing.

In the morning we were able to see a village in the distance. We went there, and we looked for a house that was run down. We knew that the people living in poor houses were not Germans or collaborating with them.

We came into a house. We told the people the truth about who we were and what had happened to us. They said not to fear. They would talk to the village priest, and he would know what to do. The priest was a very fine man. He advised that we go to the city of Klobuck which was not far from there. There were still some Jews in Klobuck. One of them was the dentist. We were to go to the dentist, and he'd be able to help us get into a Jewish work camp nearby.

The dentist's name was Frankel. When we came into his office in Klobuck we found a group of SS officers sitting in his waiting room. They were waiting to have their teeth fixed. One of the Germans called the dentist out and asked him if he knew us. When the dentist saw us he literally turned white, but said that he did know us.

It turned out that Dr. Frankel had grown up in Wielun. I remembered my father talking about him. They went to school together. We told him our name was Liss, the daughters of an old friend of his. He said he remembered our father and would help us. After he was finished with the officers he got a Jewish young man to smuggle us into the work camp which was a kilometer outside of Klobuck.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.