As told to Zeesy Silberberg
Tell us about your father.
Outside, across the yard, was a large building. My sister Faigel and I were stationed there to watch for Nazis while the men davened in our house. Faigel was 16, I was 17, and this was our job. We never dreamed of saying we were afraid. We just did what we had to do, just as my parents did what they had to do.
On Yom Kippur of 1940, we stood guard across the street from my house. Suddenly, we saw some German soldiers coming down the road. We ran as fast as we could through the back door of my home, and quickly warned the men. Immediately, all the tallisos were shoved under the beds. The men ran up into the attics of our apartment and the other apartments and hid until the Germans passed. As soon as the coast was clear, everyone returned to our house, retrieved their tallisos, and resumed davening. Faigel and I went back to our post and continued looking out for Nazis.
One day when I was 17, my mother sent me to buy bread from the black market in Cracow. A German soldier stopped me and demanded my papers.
I told him my papers were at home. The soldier demanded roughly, “Where’s home?” I was forced to lead him to my home. He told us to pack up because we were leaving in two hours. The Germans put us on a train to Mezritch, about 800 kilometers from Cracow. We never moved back into our house again.
Where did you go?
We were now compelled to wear yellow armbands with stars to show we were Jews.
The Poles were able to easily and accurately distinguish a Jew from a goy but the Germans could not. The Poles had been living among us until now. The Germans did not know us at all. But I could fool even the Poles. I had blonde hair and blue eyes and could pass as a non-Jew.
I was riding the train once, passing as a goy, not wearing an armband. My friend Aliza was on the train with me. She had jet black hair and was wearing a red kerchief. She was also trying to pass as a non-Jew, but in her case it was much riskier. We didn’t dare sit together and chat. We sat far apart from each other. The policeman approached me (my heart began to pound), pointed at Aliza, and asked me, “Is that girl Jewish?” With all the fake confidence I could muster I said, “I don’t know that girl.” You had to be quick with the Germans or they’d see through you. At the next stop I jumped off the train and waited for the next one.
Aliza survived the war and married Mr. Widawski. Her brother-in-law was Mr. Schick. Together, they founded Schick’s Bakery on 16th Avenue in Brooklyn.
When I was about 19, I went on an errand alone to Wisznicz, a shtetl near Bochnia. I was going to attempt to buy my family passes to come there. My father had three sisters there, and thought it would be better for us there than in Mezritch. Once again I traveled disguised as a goy. On the way, the train made an overnight stop in Lublin. The train would not leave until the next morning and I knew it was not safe for me to stay overnight in the train station. I began to walk the now-dark streets of the strange town. I saw a man walking, worked up my courage and asked him as casually as I could, “Where is the Jewish section in this city?”
He gave me a strange look, implying, how stupid can one be, to ask outright?, but replied that if I kept walking straight, the street would become very narrow, and then I would find myself in the Jewish section. I kept walking.
The night was absolutely black.
At last the streets narrowed, but it was so late that the town was fast asleep. I kept walking around, waiting for a yeshuah of some sort. I noticed a small light on, inside a store. I peered through the glass door.
Two Jewish men eyed me warily and firmly motioned to me that they were closed.
I mouthed to them through the door, “Ya yestem zhiduvka!” (Polish: “I am a Jew!”) They opened the door and said that they were closed. I explained to them that I was on the run, that I could have stayed at the station overnight, but would not be safe there.
“My train is leaving at 6 a.m.,” I said. “Would you kindly allow me to stay here tonight?”
They led me to the back of the store where they had a folding bed. I fell into a deep, exhausted sleep until the next morning a little before six, when they came to wake me with a cup of coffee. I didn’t know who they were and I will never know, but this is what they did for me, perhaps in the zechus of all the favors my father did for strangers.
to be continued…
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.