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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


The train traveled very slowly. At times it just pulled over onto a siding and sat for what seemed like hours. We pulled into Warsaw after 11:00 P.M. and missed the train to Lublin. We sat in the train station all night. The next train to Lublin didn't leave till 7:00 in the morning.

As we sat waiting for the morning train a lady sat down next to us. She was tall, thin, middle aged, and dressed like a peasant. She asked where we were going. I said to Lublin. She said she was going there too and would help me with my packages. I had two packages with me.

While waiting, Nunyala started talking about home and started naming some of the members of our family. The woman heard her talking and must have known we were Jewish.

In the morning they called out the track from which the train to Lublin would be leaving. The woman asked me to wait and watch her bag. She said she had to go to the toilet. Within a few minutes she returned. I took Nunyala's hand in one hand and one of my packages in the other. The women picked up her bag and my other package, and together we started walking to the train for Lublin.

We went down a flight of stairs, and at the bottom a Polish policeman stopped me. The woman continued walking with my package. I asked the policeman why he stopped me, and he said that the women I was with said that I was a Jew. I said to him, "See why she said I was a Jew. It's my package she is carrying, and while you keep me here, she's running off with it."

I showed him my passport and said it was the other woman he should be detaining because she was a thief.

He didn't listen to me and took a very long look at my passport. For a Jew, in Warsaw, to be outside the ghetto was against the law and could bring them the death penalty. An elderly German came over and asked the policeman what was the matter. He said that he was told that I was a Jew. The German told me to follow him.

He took us to a German police station next to the train station. At the police station another German started questioning me in German. I understood German, as did all Jews since Yiddish was so similar to it, but I made believe that I didn't understand a word he said. He asked me what I was, Jewish or Polish, as he looked over my passport. I kept saying I was Polish. The German who brought me in then said to the other one that he thought that I was Polish. They handed me back my passport and let us go.

I returned to the train station and again was stopped by the same Polish policeman. He asked why the Germans let me go. I told him that they saw that I was a Pole. Since my papers were in order they let me go. He then told me to come with him to the Polish police station. As he took me there he said, "Poles can tell better than the Germans who is a Jew."

Where he took me I didn't know. I had never been in Warsaw before. The police station was a large room with an iron gate dividing it in the middle. As soon as we walked in my daughter said, "Mommy, this looks like the Gemeinde at home."

The Gemeinde was the building that housed the Jewish community organization. The policeman heard her say this and said to me, "Do you still say you're not Jewish?"

I said that we were not Jewish but that my daughter played with Jewish children at home and knew what their community center looked like.

They put us in a jail cell full of women, some of whom I learned, were prostitutes. We stayed there all night. Some of the other women bothered me, but I ignored them.

The cell was in a large room with bars down the middle. One side was for the women and the other for the men. As I sat near the bars separating the room I saw a young man walk over to the bars near me. He looked around making sure nobody was listening. With his head and hand he motioned for me to come closer. He looked Jewish so I went over to him. When I got near him he whispered, "Amcha?", Hebrew for our nation.

I answered, "Yes," also in Hebrew. He asked me how I got there, and I told him my story.

I asked him what had happened to him. He said that he had escaped from Treblinka and was caught outside the ghetto. I had heard of Treblinka before, but did not know much about it. I asked him what was in Treblinka?

First he told me about the trains from Warsaw. How the people were loaded like cattle. When they arrived at Treblinka the living were made to leave the train. The dead were carried off. The people were made to line up. Men to one side, women to the other. They were ordered to undress, and then led into the gas chamber. After they were dead, Jewish young men were used to carry out the bodies.

He told me how he had escaped from Treblinka. His work there was to load the trains with the belongings of the Jews that had died from the previous transport. Once when the German guards weren't looking, he hid between some of the bundles packed into the boxcar. The train carried him out of the camp. While it was moving he jumped and came back to Warsaw. He was caught before he got back into the ghetto.

I was going to ask him why he came back, but before I could, some other people moved near us. He stopped talking and moved away. Shortly before the uprising I saw this young man again in the ghetto. I did not have a chance to speak with him, but I found out that he was with the partisans.

That night I could not sleep. I kept hearing his words over and over again.

The next morning a policeman came in, ordered me and my daughter to collect our things, and follow him. We were led into a small room and searched from head to foot. Anything of value that was found on us was taken away. Then we were led outside. I thought they were going to shoot us. We were led through a gate, and as soon as we passed the gate I saw a policeman with a white armband with a blue Jewish star on it. Then I knew we were being taken into the ghetto and not to be shot.

As I traveled to Warsaw I had overheard people talking about the ghetto. They were saying that there was no more ghetto. That the Germans had already taken everyone out. That the Jews from Warsaw were all killed by the Germans. But after I saw that Jewish policeman I knew there was still a Jewish ghetto and thanked God that I was among Jews again.

We entered the ghetto from Niska Street. We walked for a few blocks until we got to a building on Gesia Street. The building was a prison called the Gesiowka. We were led inside and again put in a cell full of women.

I still refused to speak anything but Polish and still did not admit to being Jewish. The other women in the cell laughed at me and said they had done the same thing. That I wasn't fooling anyone now that I was among other Jews. Everyone also said that in a few days they were going to take all the Jews they had caught outside the ghetto to Treblinka.

In prison everyone talked about where they were hiding and how they got caught.

One girl told me that she was with a Polish family, and the husband tried to take advantage of her. His wife got jealous and chased her out of the house.

Another girl, Yagha Gold, who later became my friend, told of hiding in a hotel that was used by prostitutes for business. She had a Polish young man who loved her and paid to hide her there. One day the police raided the hotel and found her hiding in her room. The way she looked and dressed they knew she was no prostitute and suspected that she was Jewish.

Another young girl in our cell told a horrifying tale. She had come from Vilna, a city in the northeast of Poland. One day the Germans gathered all the Jews and marched them to a field outside of the city. The Jews were forced to dig a large pit. They were made to undress. Then they were lined up, in groups, in front of the pit and shot with a machine gun. As they were shot they fell into the pit.

The young girl was in one of the last groups shot. In the middle of the night she woke up in the pit full of bodies. She crawled out and by moonlight found some rags. She put them on and ran into the woods. At the first house she came to she knocked. The Poles there were too frightened to hid her but gave her some food and clothing. She made her way to Warsaw where she had some family, but was caught before she could get into the ghetto.

We stayed in prison for about 8 days. During that time a lot of Jews were caught on the outside of the ghetto and brought to the prison. There was a lot of talk in prison about the Poles making an uprising against the Germans on the 11th of November. The 11th was the anniversary of the establishment of Poland after World War 1. We were sure there would be an uprising, and we would all be set free.

In our prison cell there were over 300 women. The cell was 10 feet wide and about 40 feet long. The floor was of rough stone and very cold. Along the sides of the two long walls were benches where the people could sit and lie down to sleep. We all ate in this crowded cell. Once a day we were let out into a yard, for a short while, to get some air.

The cell was getting so crowded that there wasn't enough room for everybody to sleep on the benches at the same time. Those people who were in prison the longest didn't want to share the benches with the newcomers. The whole group split into two factions. I was among the newcomers who argued that the benches had to be shared. I once yelled at two women who were arguing with each other. At the top of my voice I said, "Hitler doesn't have to kill us. We could do it very well ourselves."

Among the women in the prison there were six with children. One day some women who worked for the ghetto's Judenrat came and asked us to give them the children. They had a small children's home set up in the ghetto. They asked us to give them the children so they could be better cared for. They told us that there was more food for them in the home and since they didn't know what would happen to us, it would be better if they had the children. They didn't want to tell us that we were most likely going to be executed, and by giving them the children the children would be spared. But none of the children would go. My daughter started crying as soon as I mentioned it to her. She grabbed me around the neck and would not let go. None of the children would let themselves be taken from their mothers. So none of them went.

It was now November 1942 and our eighth day in prison. In the middle of the day some Germans came in and ordered all the women and children to get out. They had us line up in rows in the prison courtyard. We thought that they were sending us away to Treblinka. A group of Germans stood in front of us and made a couple of speeches. One of them was a tall, thin SS officer. Later I learned that his name was Konrad. They told us that they were issuing a general pardon to everyone in prison. They were issuing it because the Vichy government in France had formally allied themselves with the Germans. In celebration they were releasing us and our lives were spared.

Until now the French were officially neutral. On the 8th of November the Allies invaded French North Africa. This angered the Vichy government, and they joined the war on Germany's side.

One of the German officers told us to follow him. As we were led through the ghetto a man came over to us and said in Yiddish, "Jews, dance. Sing." He started dancing and clapping his hands. "You had been sentenced to death, but by a miracle your lives were spared. Previously, all the Jews caught outside the ghetto walls were sent to Treblinka."

None of us felt like singing or dancing.

We were taken to a building on Niska street, near the Umschlagplatz. Umschlagplatz was the German word for loading place. It was the rail yard where the Jews were loaded into box cars for the trip to Treblinka.

Niska street was where the work details assembled. There was a kitchen set up, and we were given some food. When we were done eating we were lined up for a selection. The old people among us were taken away. The young women, even the ones with children, were picked for various work details.

A card with a number was hung around my neck. The card was called an Ausweise, (I.D. card). It said I belonged to a detail called the Werterfassung. Werterfassung, in German, meant collection of valuables. The Werterfassung was an SS run enterprise in the ghetto.

With this card the Germans considered my presence in the ghetto as legal. They declared it illegal for a Jew to remain in the ghetto unless they were there working for the Germans. There were still people living and hiding in the ghetto who did not have cards. They were called the Wild Ones. If they were caught by the Germans they were taken to prison. Sometimes they were shipped off to Treblinka. Most of the time they were just shot.

We were told to report for work in the morning. That day we were to form groups of 4, and together we would be given an apartment in the ghetto. In prison I got to know 3 other women. Their names were Sala and Genia Buter, they were sisters, and a friend of theirs Yagha Gold. Yagha was the one I mentioned that was caught hiding in a Warsaw hotel. We were on the same side in prison concerning the benches. They took me into their group, and together we were given an apartment.

The apartment was in the section of the ghetto set aside for the people who were working for the Germans. This section was now called the small ghetto.

Our apartment was at Muranowska 38. On one side of Muranowska 38 was number 36 which was burned out, and on the other side of the center courtyard was Neska 7. Across from Neska 7 was the soup kitchens for the workers.

We were given a room that was on the second floor. The room had one window overlooking the courtyard. The room was a mess. There were broken plates on the floor and torn pillows with their feathers all about the room.

We were told about the large roundups of Jews that had gone on before we came. In all the buildings, in all the rooms, the SS searched for Jews. After removing them the soldiers searched for valuables. In their search they tore up everything. This is what had happened to our room.

In this one room we, 4 adults and 1 child, were to live. In our building lived over 100 Jewish families under these same crowded conditions.

In the basement of our building was a bakery. The other girls told me and Nunyala to go down and get some food while they cleaned up the room. In the bakery I met a lady who lived in the apartment across the hall from us. Her name was Mrs. Bshostek. She lived there with her 6 children. She was a widow. Most of her children were grown. Two of her children were married, and their spouses lived in the apartment, too.

The Bshosteks were from a small town near Warsaw called Powazek. All the Jews from the nearby towns were chased out of their homes and forced into the Warsaw Ghetto. Since we didn't have any bedding yet she invited me and my daughter to sleep that first night in her apartment. The three girls I was to share the room with spent that night in the bakery because we didn't have any wood yet to heat the room.

The next morning when the room was all cleaned up we went out searching for bedding and chairs. We brought back a couple pieces of furniture and put the place in order. Then we went to find out about the jobs to which we were assigned.

We returned to Neska 7, the assembly place for the work details. My daughter refused to stay in the apartment even though a neighbor said she would look after her. So she came to work with me.

That day was very cold, and it snowed. Nunyala was cold and hungry, but she was so afraid I would leave her she clung to me the whole time. I could not even go to the bathroom without her.

When I got to the assembly area a German asked me why I brought my daughter. I told him that just the day before I was released from prison and did not have any family to leave her with. I was excused from work that day and told to take my daughter to the children's home. The German said that the children got treated well there and that I would be able to visit her there in the evenings.

Nunyala asked me to tell her about this home. I told her it would be warm there. She would have more food, and that there would be other children to play with. I told her she would have to sleep there but that I would come and see her every day after work. Also on Saturdays, when I wouldn't have to work, she would be allowed to come and stay with me. She made me promise that I would come and see her every evening. I promised, and she asked me to take her to the children's home.

The home was in Zamenhof 56. It was called the Internat. When we came there some staff members asked me how we got to Warsaw. I told them our story. They cried with me, and they took in my child.

Nunyala was the 19th or 20th child there. At one time the home was very large. Once there were over 300 children there. The few children who remained were from the people who were still working in the ghetto.

The staff at the home were from Janusz Korczak's Children's Home. Janusz Korczak was internationally famous as a teacher and administrator of a home for Jewish orphans in Warsaw. They told me the story of how the Germans took Korczak and his children out of the ghetto a few months before. The Germans offered Korczak his freedom, but he refused to abandon his children. The morning they were to leave he made sure the children were all clean and dressed. When the Germans came the children were lined up and ready. He walked in front of the children as they went to the train. The train took them all to Treblinka.

Every day after work I would come to see my daughter. One day at work I found a gold pin. I sold it to a Pole who worked among us but was able to come in and out of the ghetto. With the money I bought some extra food and brought it to my daughter.

In the evenings I stayed with her until it was time for the children to go to sleep. Then I would have to run to my apartment building so I would not get caught outside after curfew. Sometimes Nunyala would cry and hold onto me when I tried to leave. The nurses would threaten not to let me come anymore if she continued to carry on. She would then try to stop crying and would let me go.

The work I was assigned to was called the Werterfassung. The Werterfassung's job was to go from the smaller section of the ghetto, where we lived, into the larger section and help remove anything that the Germans could use. I still remember our group leader, a Jewish policeman named Bestermen.

Bestermen was tall and heavy set. I remember him as being good to me and to the others as well. Once he asked me to come live with him. The Jewish policemen lived in their own barracks with their families. He offered to arrange for my daughter to live with us too, but I turned him down. I told him that I knew that my husband was still alive and that I could not just live with a man that way. He said he understood and never mentioned it again.

Before November the Werterfassung had about 800 workers. Now they added another 800 workers to help clean out the ghetto.

During the summer of 1942 most of the Jews were removed from the ghetto forcibly. They left behind all of their belongings. This is what the Germans had us search through for anything of value.

There were only about 30,000 Jews still in the ghetto at that time. There were once half a million. The Germans were always shrinking the ghetto in what was called an "Aktion". In an "Aktion" the SS would surround a group of blocks, search all the houses in those blocks, and take out of the ghetto all the Jews they found. Sometimes even people with work cards were taken. Then they would close off those blocks, and that's how they would shrink the ghetto.

By the time I arrived in Warsaw the ghetto had shrunk to about a dozen streets in the section I lived. There was also another occupied section in the center of the old ghetto. That one was 3 or 4 streets. It was for the brush makers. These people worked in the Toebben's shop and lived in the buildings nearby.

In groups of 45 to 50 we would go into the sections of the ghetto that had been cleared of people. We searched the houses and apartments for anything of value. All the clothing, all the furniture, anything that could be carried was brought to the court yard of each building. There everything was loaded onto carts. Poles working for the Germans would lead the carts out of the ghetto. If we found anything small and valuable we would trade for it with these Poles.

Once during the search of an apartment one of the groups uncovered the hiding place of a woman and two children. They were the ones we called "Wild Ones" because they had no papers that allowed them to stay in the ghetto. As soon as they were found the woman grabbed the children and started running. Some of the men ran after them trying to stop them from going out into the street. They shouted after them that we would not give them away, but the woman would not stop. She just kept running with the children.

From the window of the room I was working in, I saw them run out into the street. As soon as they left the building they attracted the attention of two SS soldiers standing nearby. The soldiers shouted for them to stop, but the woman and the children kept on running. The soldiers chased after them. The woman and children turned a corner, and I could not see them anymore. But when the soldiers got to the corner I saw one of them raise his machine gun and fire. I trembled at the sound of the gun, and heard the woman and children cry out. I didn't see the woman and children get shot, but I know they were. The soldiers just stood there for a few seconds and then calmly walked away.

A girl named Alla Dichtwald lived alone in our apartment building. She was 23 or 24 years old and also worked with me in the Werterfassung. She had no family in our section of the ghetto. Her mother and sister worked for Toebben and lived in a building near the shop.

After a few weeks the girls I was living with found some relatives of theirs living in another building. The relatives got them good jobs and had the girls move in with them. Alla knew that I was alone. She suggested that we move in together. At first I did not want to, but Alla always looked so bedraggled and unkempt that I took pity on her and let her move in with me. She was trying so hard to befriend me. I decided to pretend she was a sister and started looking after her. In a short while I was glad she was around. She help ease my loneliness.

The Germans told us to write letters to our families telling them everything was all right with us. I wrote many letters wanting to tell someone that I was alive and where I was. I wrote home in case someone was there, though I knew nobody was. I wrote to my husband, my brothers, and sisters. I addressed the letters to where I had last heard they were. I never received any replies and don't know of anyone who ever received any of my letters.

During this time Fay and Alter were able to exchange letters. Alter was in a lager named Guttenbron. A lager was what we called a work camp. Guttenbron was near Posnan. I knew he never got my letters because Fay remembers him asking, in every one of his letters, if she had heard anything about me.

Sometime in the middle of December I made a deal with the man who ran the bakery in my building. Every morning I took from him 50 rolls. During a break at work I sold 40 of them to the people I worked with. The money I turned over to the baker. The remaining rolls I kept as payment. Two of them I ate. Two I gave to a girl who worked with us, named Chirmcha. She had lost her whole family and most of the time walked around in a daze. The rest of the rolls I took each night to my daughter.

One day near the end of the year, as I was walking out of the bakery with the 50 rolls, Bestermen, the Jewish policeman came over to me. He told me that a group of young men, who were with the partisans, were nearby and needed the bread. Would I give it to them? I said, "Yes."

Besterman took the bread and walked over to a sewer cover in the middle of the street. He looked around and then tapped on the cover. A young man lifted it from below and was handed the bag of rolls. He disappeared down the hole with the bag. Besterman put back the sewer cover. It was the first time I had seen a member of the partisans.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.