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


Nunyala was able to stay with me on the weekends. There was no work on Saturday, so we would spend the day together. On Sunday I worked, but she stayed in the apartment and went back to the home Monday mornings. Sometimes she didn't want to go right back. So I would let her sleep late on Monday, and a neighbor would watch her during the day. When I came home from work Monday evening, I would return her to the home.

This went on from November 1942 till the middle of January 1943.

The nurses who watched the children at the Internat were the first to tell me about the "Aktions". This meant the round up of Jews, the Germans conducted, to take them out of the ghetto. The "Aktions" had stopped at the end of the summer, but it was only a matter of time before they started up again. The nurses told all the mothers that during an "Aktion" they should not come running to the home because they had a good hiding place for themselves and the children. They told us to arrange for our own hiding place and wait a few days for everything to settle down. Then when things returned to normal we could come to the home.

On Thursday evening, January 14, as I was coming home from work I went by Muranowska 40. A group of people stood around the entrance to the building. There stood a wagon, the kind of wagon used to take away a dead person. I asked someone what had happened, and he said that Rabbi, Doctor Balaban had committed suicide.

Doctor Balaban worked for the ghetto's "Judenrat". Before the war he was a famous historian. The Germans were forcing Dr. Balaban to give a speech that Saturday night to the Jews in the ghetto. As a Jewish leader, the Germans wanted him to tell everyone to cooperate with the Germans as they evacuated the ghetto. But instead of helping the Germans he took his own life.

We didn't know it then, but the Germans had a big "Aktion" planned for that Monday, January 18.

The evening Dr. Balaban died I went to see my daughter, as I did every evening. That day all the children were sick with a skin rash. They were being treated with a cream. I returned on Friday evening, and the nurses said that none of the children would be allowed to leave for the weekend.

I went to the home on Saturday and on Sunday to help with the children and just to be with Nunyala. When I left her on Sunday night I stopped in the hall outside the children's bedroom. I leaned against the wall and started to cry. I stayed there for over an hour. I just couldn't bring myself to leave. My heart ached as I looked at the children. I cried every time I saw my daughter lying there sick and in pain.

It was the last time I would see my child.

That Sunday night, January 17, when I got back to my apartment I heard that there was going to be an "Aktion" in the morning. Everybody was running around getting ready to go into hiding. Alla and I quickly gathered up some of our things and hurried to our hiding place.

On the street side, our apartment building, was two stories high. Around the center courtyard it was four stories high. The end of the hallways, on the third and forth floors, originally led to the attics. The entrance to the attic on the third floor was made to look like a closet. So it appeared that the hallway now ended in a broom closet. In the closet was a small hidden door very low on the far wall. In front of the door stood a large garbage pail that completely covered the door. The pail was always kept full of garbage to discourage anyone from moving it and looking behind it. This small door was the entrance to a very large attic room. That was our hiding place. Over 100 Jews entered this room to hide from the SS on that Sunday night.

The room had no light, of course. A light would make it easier to find. Everyone brought what food they could with them. To go into hiding people prepared small packages of dried bread. I brought nothing with me, but people shared what little they had.

There was a crawl-space leading from the other side of the room to another building. The crawl-space was used as a toilet. Once in awhile some of the young men would go through the crawl-space into the next building. They would bring back news of what was happening in the ghetto.

All day Monday we could hear the soldiers in the street and in our building looking for us. When the Germans searched our building they found the attic on the fourth floor. They did not think of looking for another one on the third floor. Of course no one hid in the fourth floor attic. Our hiding place was an excellent one. Even during the following April's "Aktion" it was not discovered. Only during the uprising, when the building was set on fire, did the people finally have to abandon it.

By the evening I wanted to leave the hiding place and go to my daughter. The other people would not let me leave. They were afraid I would be caught and give the hiding place away.

The following evening I got out of the attic, but I could not get out of the building. On the first floor of our building was a shop that made uniforms for the Germans. The people working in the shop were left alone by the SS during this Aktion. Employees of companies doing work for the war were exempt from deportation. The shop people knew about our hiding place. They wouldn't let me leave because they had told the Germans that nobody was hiding in the building, and if I were caught leaving they could all be killed. The shop people chased me back into the hiding place.

On the third day of the "Aktion" it was a lot quieter on our street, and I was let out of the building. I ran to the children's home but found the children and the nurses gone. Because of the children's illness they did not make it to their hiding place, and they were all taken away by the Germans.

I ran around looking for anybody who knew what had happened to the children. I found out that the Jewish undertaker had found a child in the street near the school and had taken the child home with him.

I ran to the undertaker's apartment and there saw one of the children from the home. He looked at me and said, "You're Nunya's mother."

I asked him how he got here and if he remembered anything of what had happened to the other children.

He said he remembered his mother coming into the home and quickly taking him and his sister out. As they ran along the street he looked back and saw his mother and sister fall, and then he fell. After that he woke up in the bed he was lying in and didn't remember anything else.

The undertaker told me what he thought had happened to the boy. It seemed that his mother came for her children at the start of the "Aktion" but was killed by the SS as she tried to run from them. The boy was knocked unconscious and left for dead. When the undertaker discovered that the boy was alive he brought him to his home.

I learned nothing else, until after the war, of what had happened to the children and to the women who watched them.

All I knew was that they were gone.

At that time the Germans had planned that the "Aktion" would be the final liquidation of the ghetto, but there was some resistance by the Jews. It was a small uprising, and the resistance surprised the Germans. After three days they let it be known that it was just an "Aktion" and that it was over. They said that the ghetto would remain and that everybody should go back to work.

After the January "Aktion" the ghetto changed. The "Judenrat" lost control to the young men and women who were the partisans. They called themselves the "Jewish Fighting Organization." They were preparing for the final defense of the ghetto. Everyone knew that another uprising was coming. Some feared it because they knew that it would mean the final end of the ghetto.

Before Nunyala was taken away I had planned, with two of the other woman from work, to escape from the ghetto with my daughter. We were going to join the partisans outside of Warsaw. But it was very cold that January and because of my daughter we decided to wait until spring. Now that she was gone I didn't care anymore.

After the January "Aktion" I never saw those girls again. I don't know if they were caught or if they escaped.

Two men from our apartment house did escape from the ghetto, at that time. Both men were without papers. Wild ones they were called. One of the men tried to get me to go along, but I would not go. They got into a work camp outside Warsaw, but soon after they got there the camp was closed and everyone was sent to Lublin. I met them there when I got to Lublin a few weeks later. So we ended up in the same, after all.

I lived in a state of despair. I went back to work, but I was heartbroken over my daughter. Nothing that happened around me interested me anymore. I lived this way until the uprising on April 19, 1943, the day before Passover.

In our apartment building lived a family named Kornblatt. Their son was a policeman in the ghetto. On the morning of April 19th he came into the building and told everybody to go into the hiding place. He said that the Germans had surrounded the ghetto and they were about to start another "Aktion". This, we knew, was to be the last of the ghetto.

As we were hurrying to our hiding place we heard firing in the streets of the ghetto. People were saying that this was the uprising. That the shooting was from the Jewish partisans who had organized a defense of the ghetto.

From our hiding place we were able to see groups of Jews, with their hands in the air, being led down the street by the SS. I looked out between some boards onto Muranowska street. I saw a group being led to the Umschlagplatz.

The shooting went on all day. In the evening it got very still.

In our hiding place people talked about the uprising by the Toebben's shop and the Schultz factory. Among us, 100 Jews, there wasn't one single gun. There was nothing to fight with. We were sure that the Poles would supply us with weapons once the uprising started, but nothing came.

As things quieted down outside our hiding place the building janitor, a very thin man, opened a bag and pulled out two dozen hard boiled eggs. The janitor ran a small food store out of his apartment. We couldn't have been more surprised. All those eggs were worth a fortune at that time in the ghetto. He smiled as he looked at our faces and said, "I brought something for the Seder."

A normal Passover Seder we could not, of course, have. But in our current predicament the story of Passover gave us some hope. The eggs were cut in fours, and everybody got a quarter of an egg during the Seder.

There was a young couple among the hundred Jews in the hiding place. The woman was a pretty, blond lady named Malka. They had a baby that was only a few weeks old. The baby's grandmother was the woman who let me and my daughter stay in her apartment our first night in the ghetto. During the first night in hiding the baby cried often.

Every time the baby cried the other people would tell the parents to keep the baby quiet, but the parents could not keep it quiet for long. The more the baby cried the angrier the other people grew and the more frantic the parents became. We knew that the SS would be prowling the streets and buildings -- looking for the hiding places. We all had to walk slowly and talk only in whispers. The baby's crying put all of us in danger of being discovered.

In the morning, the noise outside got louder. The SS had come back into the ghetto. This time they had tanks, and the shooting started once again. The noise started the baby crying, and the parents just could not stop it.

A group of men told the young couple that they had to either leave the hiding place, give them the baby, or put the infant to sleep themselves. Terrible choices.

They couldn't leave the hiding place. We were all sure that going out into the ghetto meant certain death, either from being shot on the street or from being sent to Treblinka. They also couldn't kill the baby themselves. The couple talked quietly together for awhile. Then the husband took the baby from his wife and gave it to one of the men. The husband sat back down next to his wife, and they started to cry.

The men took the baby to the other side of the room. The group of men stood around the baby so the parents could not see what was happening. They laid the baby on a table. One of the men held a pillow over the baby's face. There was no sound in the room except the muffled crying of the baby's parents. In a few minutes it was over, and the baby's body was wrapped in a white tablecloth. By the next morning the baby's body was gone. I don't know how it was disposed. Nobody mentioned it again.

I sat in the hiding place for a few days until the morning of the 23rd of April. That morning the neighbor's son, the policeman who warned us about the "Aktion", came into our hiding place. He told us that anyone who belonged to the Werterfassung should go to Neska street for an assembly. He said that the Germans were going to make a new ghetto for the members of the Werterfassung.

As I was leaving the hiding place Mrs. Brozostek handed me a pack of dried bread. I thanked her and we wished each other good-bye.

The leader of the Werterfassung was a SS man named Konrad. He gave out an announcement about the new ghetto for the workers. Members of the Werterfassung and some other work details were offered identification cards that would allow them to remain in the ghetto.

A group of people left the hiding place. Alla and I were among them. As I left the building I could see smoke rising all over the ghetto. To fight the uprising and to get people out of their hiding places the SS had started to set fire to the buildings. Also they would pump poison gas into the basements and into the sewers. Later in concentration camp I met some of the people who had been exposed to the gas. They could talk only in whispers since the gas affected their throats.

We went to Neska street. Over 1600 Jews assembled there. We got into rows as Konrad stood in front of us. We were told that we were going to the assembly place by the Jewish Gemeinde. There they were going to organize a new section of the ghetto. With Konrad in front of us we marched up Neska street. When we got to Zamenhof street, Konrad turned right and the whole column turned with him. I knew something was wrong because the Gemeinde was to the left, but I continued walking with everybody else. I didn't want to leave the column.

At the end of the street stood a large pair of doors, as wide as the street itself. The doors were swung open to the outside of the ghetto, and we were marched through them.

As soon as we were outside we were surrounded by armed soldiers, many of them with dogs. Nobody was able to get away. We were pushed and shoved and hurried to the Umschlagplatz where the train tracks were. By the hundreds we were loaded into freight cars. We were packed in so tight that people had to climb over each others to fit in. Alla was with me in the same car. Then the doors were shut, and the train started moving.

On April 23, 1943 I left Warsaw. Less than six months before, I had arrived here by train, traveling like a human being On this day, I left it, packed like an animal.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.