LIGHT FROM THE SHADOWS
the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation in Montreal
with the financial help of
the Polish Socio-Cultural Foundation in Montreal
Light From The Shadows
Copyright: Mila Sandberg-Mesner
Cover etching "Hands" by Beata Wehr
Andrea Axt, Ilona Gruda, Alina Kopeć, Agata Kozanecka
Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada
You are holding the eighth publication in our series,
Aby nie zapomnieć - Pour ne pas oublier - Let us not
We would like to express our thanks to
the author, Mrs Mila Sandberg-Mesner, for agreeing
to publish her wartime recollections and for her friendly
cooperation during the process.
A number of people who survived the German
Occupation of Poland during W.W.II are still alive
and scattered around the world. The personal history
of every one of those individuals is woven into a series
of momentous events: tragic or fortunate encounters,
fateful life decisions, and miraculous deliverances.
The people in question are not young anymore and since
they have not published their memoirs by now, it is
doubtful that they will ever do so. There is, however,
no question that these testimonies are enormously important
historical records. They tell us much about those perilous
times; about how people behaved in dramatic, dangerous,
and often tragic circumstances. They tell us what we
might expect from strangers, from those close to us,
and from ourselves. The more testimonies we have from
those times, the broader will be our knowledge of the
world around us and the more profound our understanding
of it. We must not allow the facts to fade away into
oblivion as the witnesses pass on. We must ensure,
too, that those who did not survive are never forgotten.
The aim of the Polish-Jewish Heritage
Foundation is to seek out and publish the testimonies
of survivors in order to distribute them into libraries.
We will encourage those who are inclined to write,
but have not gotten around to doing so, not to delay
recording their experiences for the benefit of future
generations. We will publish all testimonies in the
language in which they were written with all confidence
to their authenticity.
Zaleszczyki, My Town
Dr. David Wasserman (Dunek)
The End of An Era
Kolomyja: Class of 1941
The Garden (May - August 1942)
The Kolomyja Ghetto
The Liquidation of The Kolomyja Ghetto
Our Life As Catholics
People In My Memory
After The War Life Goes On
from the shadows
My husband Izio and the children
and grandchildren of Ziuta, Lola and Jasia
Daremne żale - próżny trud, Set aside
Bezsilne złorzeczenia! Stop the sterile
Przeżytych ksztaltów żaden cud End the empty
Nie wróci do istnienia. Cease the needless
Swiat wam nie odda, id±c wstecz, Long gone
is the past.
Znikomych mar szeregu - Time will
Nie zdoła ogień ani miecz To give
Powstrzymać my¶li w biegu. Which you
Trzeba z żwymi naprzód i¶ć, Put away
the faded laurels
Po życie sięgać nowe. With the
living, march instead
A nie w uwiędlych laurów li¶ć Embrace once more the
Z uporem stroić głowę. That
forever renews itself.
Wy nie cofniecie życia fal! No
matter how bitter
Nic skargi nie pomog± - Tears
cannot stop the world
Bezsilne gniewy, próżny żal! Against
the very tides of life
¦wiat pójdzie swoj± drog±. Even fire
and sword will fail.
Adam Asnyk (1838-1897) Freeform translation
of a poem
by Adam Asnyk (1838-1897) by Maja Siemieńska
First of all, my thanks go to my husband,
Izio, who during our 52 years of marriage listened
to stories from my life, and who suggested that I write
Secondly, to my special friend, Ala Gizycki,
who patiently and skilfully made the first written
draft from my disorderly papers.
To Krystyna Sokolowska, who tried to fish
out repetitions and suggested how to fill some gaps
to make my stories more understandable to people less
familiar with the events and horrors of the war.
To Tristano Farzan, for his useful advice.
To Maja Siemienska, who put the final
touch to my story.
And to Zbigniew Malecki for his kind introduction.
. Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.
T.S. Eliot, Rhapsody on a Windy Night (1917)
Mila Sandberg-Mesner's Light From the
Shadows is a series of vignettes recalling family members,
friends, and places of her childhood. Places such as
Zaleszczyki and Kolomyja, which the poet Andrzej Chciuk
dubbed Atlantis, like that fabled continent that disappeared,
never to return.
The memoirs read like a film script. The author first
focuses on Zaleszczyki, a town known as the Polish
Riviera on the Dniestr. It is also famous for being
the last stop on Polish soil for civilian and military
refugees crossing over to Romania that fateful September
The camera then zeroes in on the Sandberg Family: the
father, the mother, and the sister, and slowly moves
on to include other members of the extended family
and friends. We meet the neighbours as we move from
street to street and house to house. As she writes,
the author slowly reveals details from her memory,
which enrich the Sandberg Family saga. I commend the
author for this approach.
Mila Sandberg's idyllic youth was brutally
interrupted by the war and successive occupations:
first by the Soviets, then by the Germans, and again
by the Soviets. The scene darkens; there are more shadows
than light when the Nazis herd the Jews into the Kolomyja
ghetto, only to murder them. During this black period,
Mila Sandberg encounters many Poles and Ukrainians,
some who were good, and some who were very bad.
Remembrances of the Holocaust vary by
the intensity of what individuals experienced. The
first recollections of those returning from the hell
of the camps were brutal in their details, the starkness
of the language leaving no room for empty rhetoric.
Though there were exceptions, such as the prose of
Stefan Badeni, who wrote of the "beauty of Mauthausen."
When discussing the merits of keeping the memories
alive by not revealing any of the experiences even
to the closest family members, Karolina Lanckoron'ska,
who was interned in Ravensbrueck, and whom
I met in Fryburg, said that it was absolutely necessary
to talk about and share the horror of the experiences
since it can be a form of therapy - and healing that
can free the victims from the burden of the past and
allow them to get on with their lives.
Mila Sandberg's recollections are more than a recounting
of events. They are a reflection on the war and the
premeditated murder of Jews. By telling the stories
of individual family members and friends, she sheds
light on incidents and events that must never be forgotten
In reading the memoirs, the reader is
struck by the fairness and objectivity of the author's
assessment of people she encountered during this time.
She witnessed unspeakable events and actions perpetrated
by Germans, Russians, Ukrainians, and even Poles. Yet
we see no hatred, nor desire for revenge towards those
who truly deserve no sympathy. Just after the war,
when she saw a column of German prisoners of war prodded
along by Soviet soldiers - Mila Sandberg felt pity
and sympathy for the exhausted and emaciated young
While reading Mila Sandberg-Mesner's memoirs,
I had to wonder whether Polish-Jewish relations could
ever be normal. Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska, assistant-editor
of Wiez and Polish Consul General in New York since
April 2001, said it much more eloquently in a question
she put to a Rabbi born in Katowice: "Are normal relations
possible between two peoples who for centuries lived
side by side and often together in the same country,
after one of them had been murdered on the very same
land they shared? Is it possible to overcome the trauma
which prevents both our nations from going beyond the
negative stereotypes that lead to mutual assignation
of blame and endless recriminations?" To which the
Rabbi responded: "Normalcy will come when Poles can
accept that those Jews who served in the U.B. (Internal
Security Service) were firstly communists and when
Jews can accept that those Poles who murdered Jews
were criminals first. It has nothing to do with either
political correctness or indifference."
Zbigniew Malecki studied history and journalism
at the University of Fryburg, Switzerland.
He is a contibutor to many journals.
For over fifty years I tried to suppress
the painful memories of the tragic events that took
place between 1939 and 1945. The only person with whom
I really shared all of my recollections was my husband
Izio. It is he who suggested that I honour the people
who played such a critical role in my life by committing
my recollections to paper. I agreed, for I feared that
their memory would fade into oblivion if I did not
pay tribute to their lives and deaths in writing.
My nieces and nephews also urged me to write since
I was the only living link to their past.
I wrote the memories as they came to me, without paying
particular attention to their chronological sequence.
I ask my readers to view these recollections as tombstones
for those who have vanished.
ZALESZCZYKI, MY TOWN
We lived in a land called the "Flats of Podole." The
Podole region is carved with deep gorges through which
rivers flow. A thick layer of fertile black soil covers
the different strata of sediment and rock which accumulated
over millions of years. The stream, Tempa, runs into
the river Seret, which in turn joins up with the Dniestr.
The surrounding ridges are nearly 300 metres high and
give the illusion of a rugged landscape.
Before WWII, the town of Zaleszczyki was located in the south-eastern
corner of Poland. The town I knew was in many ways unique. It had a population
of approximately 5000 people. Nestled on a peninsula, it was surrounded on three
sides by the wide, swift-flowing Dniestr River. A ring of gently rising cliffs
enclosed the river and together with the town's southern exposure protected Zaleszczyki
from the harsh northern winds. This moderate microclimate was ideal for a summer
resort. Zaleszczyki had everything a resort town needed: plenty of sun, protection
from wind, excellent sandy beaches for swimming and sunbathing, and plenty of
accommodation in some twenty hotels. Every summer the population of our town
doubled with tourists and people in search of cures for respiratory problems,
arthritis, or other ailments. The mild climate was conducive to the cultivation
of semi-tropical fruits, such as peaches, apricots, melons, and grapes. Zaleszczyki
was deservedly known as the Polish Riviera. During the high season, the hotels
were fully booked. Tourism and the export of fruit fuelled the town's economy.
The construction of new hotels and private villas provided employment for many
people, making Zaleszczyki a relatively prosperous town where fewer people were
left without work than in other parts of the country. The surplus funds in the
city's coffers went toward beautifying our town. Red and white cherry trees lined
the main road leading into the town, while elegantly trimmed trees shaded the
streets on both sides. Many of the main streets were paved. There were two lovely
beaches on the Dniestr River. The first was a splendidly sunny beach made up
of terraces cut into the rocky cliffs, which drew sunbathers who believed in
the miraculous benefits of the sun. The other was a tree-covered shady beach,
which occupied a sandy stretch with manicured grounds. Both beaches offered boat
rentals. Colourful kayaks were moored along the piers or floated up and down
the river. There were restaurants on both beaches and the sounds of classical
and dance music could be heard from loudspeakers. A military band entertained
visitors from time to time and several dance halls catered to the young at heart.
The weather remained fair until the middle of October, when the season closed
with a big celebration called winobranie (grape harvest). During the ten days
of festivities, the hotels were filled to capacity. Rooms in private homes were
also rented by the town people to accommodate the flow of tourists. Thanks to
this prosperity, there was less resentment and friction among the local population
than in many other parts of Poland. The animosity and dissonances came mostly
Our house, at No. 9 Kosciuszki Street,
was a two-story building which stood about 200 metres
from the river. My family lived on the upper floor.
The lower floor was rented out to tenants and also
housed my father's office. Some rooms in our home were
furnished in the late Victorian style with carved armoires,
bed stands, mirrors, a huge Dutch credenza, a grand
piano, heavy draperies, and kilims. The other rooms
contained a hodgepodge of useful beds, tables, wardrobes,
etc. To us children, the house seemed beautiful; we
thought it was perfect. In addition to the main structure,
there were a number of adjoining buildings that served
as a stable, a carriage house, a woodshed, a chicken
coop, and storage. Two extra rooms were designated
as sleeping quarters for the staff. The whole house
was a fairyland of nooks and crannies in which to play
house or hide and seek. That spring day of 1940 when
we had to leave our home in Zaleszczyki was the saddest
of my young life. I kissed the walls, tears flowing
down my cheeks as I said goodbye to the house I loved
so much, knowing that a part of me would always remain
within those walls. My life in that house until September
of 1939 had truly been a happy one.
My father had constructed his mill over the Tempa.
From our house it was 12 kilometres to the mill, but
it took over an hour to get there by carriage, as the
road wound up the hill in a steep climb to the top.
We would often jump off the buggy and walk part of
the distance to ease the load for the horses. The view
from the road was spectacular. Over the canyon one
could see fertile fields of wheat, rye, corn, sunflower,
buckwheat, and flax in a checkered pattern of greens,
yellows, and blues. We knew all the varieties of crops
grown in that area. On the crest of the hill sat the
new Polish settlement of Smiglowo. The village was
a bone of contention between the Ukrainian natives
and the Poles who settled there. The land reform of
1937 divided the estate belonging to Baroness Brunicki-Turnau
into 10-acre lots. Homes were erected on the lots and
settlers from the Polish Mazowsze were brought in to
occupy and work the land. None of the plots were made
available to the Ukrainian natives for purchase. Naturally,
the new settlement created feelings of animosity and
hatred towards the newcomers. For the poor Polish peasants
from Mazowsze on the other hand, this was a godsend,
an opportunity to escape their miserable conditions.
The land produced abundantly and the twenty-year repayment
schedule could be easily met. A few weeks after the
Soviet army occupied our land in 1939, the village
of Smiglowo was surrounded and all the Polish settlers
deported to Siberia. We heard stories of horrible acts
of brutality committed by the Soviets during these
forced deportations. Later on, letters began arriving
from the settlers telling us of their great suffering
and many hardships in Russia.
Several years after starting a new life
I became obsessed with the desire to see Zaleszczyki
again. There was no one left there to whom I could
write to in order to learn about the town's fate and
the changes that had taken place there in the intervening
years. After the Second World War, Zaleszczyki became
part of the Soviet Union. I needed a visa to go there
but my request for one had been denied on the excuse
that the town was not on the "Intourist" (international
tourist) list and could not be visited. Then a most
extraordinary thing happened. My husband, Izio, obtained
a visa for us to visit Moscow and Leningrad. We departed
Montreal aboard an Aeroflot plane. As the seats were
not assigned, we picked our own. Izio took an aisle
seat and I picked the middle one. Seated at the window
was a man, who, shortly after the plane took off, began
a conversation with another man in front of him. To
my astonishment I noticed that he was speaking in the
accented Ukrainian of my hometown. I asked him in Ukrainian
where he was from. He said he came from Horodenka,
a village only 15 kilometres away from Zaleszczyki.
I became terribly excited and explained to him that
Zaleszczyki was my hometown and promptly showered him
with questions. He knew Zaleszczyki well, having attended
the School of Agriculture there in the 1970s.
I explained to him where exactly our house was located,
and asked if he knew the building. To my surprise,
he told me that the building had been the school dormitory,
and that he had lived there during his years at the
I explained to him that I was born on the second floor
in a room with a balcony. "That was my room!" he exclaimed.
Hearing this, I felt a shiver run down my spine and
my skin was covered with goose bumps. This whole experience
was almost frightening. We kept talking during the
whole flight to Moscow. He told me of the many changes
that had befallen the town: the demolition of the Town
Hall, a seventeenth-century fortress built to defend
the town's people against the invading Tatars. Later
on, this historic fortress belonged to the families
of Prince Poniatowski. The landmark was destroyed in
order to erase all traces of Polish heritage in that
land. He told me how the Dniestr had shrunk, from a
once mighty river down to a narrow
waterway by the channelling of its waters for irrigation.
The buildings and the trees lining the main roads had
all disappeared, having been cut down and used for
firewood. A disastrous flood occurred one spring, putting
an end to the lovely beaches. Cars were now driving
over part of the Polish cemetery, after the road had
been widened. My childhood friend, Ignacy Garlicki,
was buried there. The Jewish cemetery was totally desecrated:
the tombstones were used as tiles to pave the pedestrian
walkway in the marketplace. Ugly apartment blocks had
been erected on the cemetery grounds.
Behind the city hospital is a mass grave,
where lie the bodies of many of my friends and relatives
who were murdered by the Germans in the fall of 1941.
An order was issued to send Jewish workers to clean
barracks. The Jews marched there with brooms, pails,
and cleaning rags. Straight to their deaths. Among
840 people who were executed in cold blood that day
were my cousin Minka our cook Mania, my father's sister
Frima, my aunt Klara's husband Jan, the wife of my
father's accountant, Cylia Barad, and almost all of
my school friends. No monument or commemorative plaque
marks this place of horror and mass murder.
Ukraine's independence was declared in
1989 after the fall of the Soviet Union. Obtaining
a visitor's visa to Zaleszczyki was no longer a problem.
The expatriates from Zaleszczyki living in Poland and
England organized a religious pilgrimage to our town.
I declined the invitation, but my friend, Marian Zeman,
who lives in Lodz, and with whom I had been in touch,
took part in this pilgrimage. I asked him to light
a memorial candle on the mass grave of the victims
of the November 1941 killings. It was Marian who told
me that our home had been razed. The beautiful town
of my youth, the town that I loved so dearly, now lives
only in my memory.
Gedalia Elberger, my mother's grandfather,
was a wealthy landowner from the village of Kasperowce.
My mother's father, Moses, died when she was nine years
old. He left behind his widow, Frieda Besner, with
three small children: my mother, Fanny (nine), Klara
(seven), and Josef (Josio; five). A year later, Frieda
remarried, taking Josio with her. Her two daughters
were brought up by their paternal grandparents. My
parents, Zygmunt and Fanny Sandberg, married before
the start of the First World War. Theirs was a love-match
and not an arranged marriage as was the custom in those
My parents met while riding in a forest somewhere near
Kasperowce. At the time of their first meeting, they
were both engaged to someone else as part of an arranged
marriage. My mother had long, ash-blond hair which
she wore braided and wrapped around her head like a
crown. They fell in love, broke their respective engagements,
and married each other.
Despite the romantic nature of their courtship, my
mother received a substantial dowry from her grandfather.
My father came from a struggling family
of limited means. He loved farming, and for a time
leased an estate from Count Dunin-Borkowski. My parents
lived fairly comfortably before the First World War.
Rose (Ziuta), my oldest sister, was born in 1908, followed
two years later by my brother, Adolf (Bubcio). When
the war broke out in 1914, the family, including the
cook, fled before the advancing Russian army. My grandfather's
estate was burned to the ground. My mother used to
tell us that the library alone burned for a few days.
All their important papers, as well as my grandfather
Moses' writings, went up in smoke.
The whole family arrived in Zakliczyn near Krakow.
There, a short time later, my little brother Bubcio
died of diphtheria at age five. We were told that he
was a sweet, gentle, and lovable child. My parents
were devastated by this terrible loss. Bubcio's death
left Ziuta with feelings of guilt. For the rest of
her life, she reproached herself for mistreating her
younger brother. Lola, my other sister, was born in
1919. My father, hoping for a son, was somewhat disappointed
at the birth of another daughter, though he grew to
love her very much. He nicknamed her Trost (Comfort).
Four years later, my parents tried again for a son.
I was told my father greeted my arrival with tears.
He did not show me much affection as I was growing
up. He nicknamed me Zukunft (Future).
My father, Zygmunt, was an industrious
man. During the First World War, he obtained a contract
from the Austrian army to deliver cattle to the front.
The venture must have been a profitable one, because
by the end of the war he was a wealthy man. As I said
before, he began by leasing four farms from Count Dunin-Borkowski,
and later bought a very comfortable home for his family
in Zaleszczyki, in addition to some real estate in
Lwów and Czerniowce as an investment. My parents lived
quite comfortably. My mother used to travel to Lwów
to buy her dresses from a fashionable store called,
Dom Mody Pozamentowej. Once, when a touring theatre
company performed in Zaleszczyki, I recall that my
father booked the best seats in the house for the whole
family, including aunts and uncles. Ziuta, my sister,
was engaged in 1927 and married a year later. Her wedding
was a lavish affair preceded by engagement celebrations
and a large party on the eve of the wedding, all of
which we hosted in our house to the accompaniment of
live Klezmer music. The wedding itself took place in
Kolomyja. My father rented a number of buses to transport
the family and guests from Zaleszczyki to Kolomyja
and back. He also reserved and paid for rooms for all
the guests at the Bristol Hotel. Soon after the wedding,
my sister and her husband, left for Vienna. My father
had already promised her husband a sizeable dowry in
U.S. dollars. Part of this money was to finance his
medical specialization in Vienna and Paris.
In 1922, my father began building an industrial
flourmill. The mill was soon completed but it still
needed additional machinery. All went well until October
of 1929, when the financial market suddenly crashed
and put an end to my father's fortune. The price of
wheat fell to less than half, and suddenly there were
no more customers to be found. He dropped the leases
on two of the farms, as he could no longer afford the
rent payments. Meanwhile, not realizing the gravity
of the situation, my sister wrote from Vienna, asking
for money to buy a caracul coat with a fox collar.
Despite the precariousness of their situation, my parents
complied with her request. Our financial situation
worsened. My father was forced to sell the properties
in Lwów and Czerniowce for next to nothing. But unlike
his business associates who declared bankruptcy, he
refused to take this drastic step. From that time on,
frugality and counting pennies became our way of life.
I don't recall having toys. My dresses were hand-me-downs
from Lola. During the winter, a few of the rooms in
our house were not heated to save on fuel. Still, Lola
had it easy. She was a 'Panna na wydaniu' (a girl of
marriageable age). She always seemed to have money
to spend on new dresses, silk lingerie, perfumes, the
theatre, or whatever she fancied. It wasn't until 1937
that the family's finances began to improve.
My parents were not assimilated Jews. Though traditional
in many respects, preserving the customs and celebrating
the rituals and holidays of the Jewish people, they
taught their children to be tolerant of other religions
and to respect other people's beliefs and way of life.
My parents were charitable and strove to alleviate
the misery and suffering of the less fortunate in our
town. Once, when my father was at the mill, he learned
that nuns had been going around collecting money and
food for their orphanage, but that they hadn't stopped
by the mill! My father called them and said, "I know
you were collecting money in the neighbourhood, so
why didn't you come to the mill?" "Oh, because we were
told you were Jewish." "But your children need food
and this is a mill," my father told her. From then
on, every month, he distributed 100-kilo sacks of flour
to each of the Polish, Ukrainian, and Jewish orphanages
in our town. During the severe winter of 1928-1929,
our huge cellar was filled with coal and potatoes for
all those in need. I remember when a local coachman's
horse died, leaving him and his family with no means
of support. My father and Josef Adamski, the parish
priest, raised enough money to buy a replacement.
At home, our Jewish cook and Catholic
maid were both loved and respected by us, the children.
Our Polish friends invited us to their Christmas dinners.
Mrs. Nedilenko used to send us a plate of Christmas
goodies, and my mother reciprocated with an equally
elaborate plate of sweets on Purim. In our home, I
don't ever recall hearing a derogatory remark about
other people's religion or customs. Overall, we were
quite at ease in the homes of our Polish friends and
did not feel out of place among them. It would be difficult
to overestimate how this ease in our relationships
and familiarity with Polish life helped to ensure our
survival later on, when we had to pass for Catholics
and live under assumed Polish names.
My first vivid recollection of my mother
is from when
I was very small. I had just emerged from a nightmare
in which a she-devil was chasing me. I ran petrified
to my mother's room, climbed into her bed and found
comfort, peace, and security in her arms. These nightmares
were the result of Pawlinka's bedtime stories or Bajki,
mostly folk tales of vengeance, peopled with devils,
demons, and fearful spirits.
At age six, I had scarlet fever and was
covered with an itchy rash. I recall my mother singing
to me in Ukrainian about a poor boy who always worked
for others and never for himself. Her lovely voice
soothed and comforted me as I moaned with fever and
a splitting headache. My mother sat next to me, applying
cold, soothing compresses to my burning forehead.
Once, as I was lying next to my mother
and enjoying the closeness, I remember thinking that
someday she would not be there, and I began to cry.
It was wonderful to be so close to her. I loved the
scent of her body.
My mother was tall and elegant. In her
youth she was slim, but later gained weight. I remember
once when Lola and I had to pull her corset strings
in opposite directions.
She always carried herself erect, holding her head
up high. She walked with short, rapid steps and often
ran up the flight of stairs to our floor. I always
recognized the sound of her footsteps coming up the
My mother was a good swimmer. She would
dive into the cold waters of the Dniestr for her regular
swims. I recall Dunek, my brother-in-law, who happened
to see her on one such occasion, running along the
shore and taunting her aloud that a woman of fifty
ought to know when to stop swimming.
I remember her going to a New Year's ball
dressed in a beautiful black lace gown; a gown she
wore to most important occasions before the war started.
On Ziuta's wedding day, that same gown was accessorized
with magnificent diamond earrings. To my child's eyes,
she sparkled like a Christmas tree.
My mother must have been very kind to
people who were in her employ. When our ex-coachman,
Ivanko, was close to death in the hospital, he sent
for my mother, wishing to see her before dying.
My mother was the founder and president
of Kolo Kobiet Opieki nod Ubogimi Chorymi (Women's
Circle Caring for the Poor and Sick). The organization
delivered kosher meals to Jewish patients in the hospital
and paid for their prescriptions. Once, I recall my
mother coming home with her cheeks flushed, having
chaired a meeting of the committee. She angrily described
her difficulties to her assistant, Moshe Hütler. Moshe
Hütler was responsible for drafting and revising the
committee statutes and took care of the financial books.
The organization was often in the red and my mother
regularly contributed funds to balance the books.
I came into this world with the help of
a midwife on 22 November 1923, in my parents' bedroom.
Being born in that house gave me a warm feeling of
security. As a child,
I even recall carving my initials on the attic beams
as a testament to the fact that the house belonged
to me. The household I was born into consisted of my
father, Zygmunt (39), my mother, Fanny (36), my sisters
Ziuta (16) and Lola (4), our cook Ecia, our maid Pawlinka,
and our coachman Wasylko. Pawlinka was given the job
of caring for me, while Ecia lavished her love and
attention on Lola. Pawlinka was of mixed Polish, Ukrainian,
and Gypsy blood. She was in her 30s, illiterate, and
used to call herself "ciemna" (ignorant). She spoke
a mixture of Polish and Ukrainian. Pawlinka loved me.
She used to say: "Milinka, ty taka cudowna, bylaby
jeszcze ladniejsza, ale już nie ma któredy," which
more or less meant: "Mila, you are beautiful, and you
could not be more beautiful, because there is no more
room for it." She used to call me: "Donciu moja," which
means "my little daughter."
Pawlinka carried me in her arms, fed me,
sang to me and sometimes took me along to her church
on Sundays. When I was six, she met a cobbler by the
name of Roszczuk, and married him. On the day of her
wedding, my father's carriage was fitted out for the
occasion. The horses rode to the church adorned with
ribbons while I occupied the place of honor between
the young couple. I recall that Ecia, our cook, presented
the couple with a gift of two holy icons. The wedding
reception took place at our house. Ecia prepared the
food, while Ziuta and my mother set the table. From
that day on, Pawlinka had a place of her own, though
she continued to work for us daily. Her friendship
with Ecia made this arrangement a lot easier.
My father wanted Lola and I to learn Hebrew
prayers. At one point, he engaged a melamet, a teacher
of the Talmud, named Berl, to come to our house. Neither
of us learned much Hebrew, but his visits led to his
marriage with Ecia, and her subsequent departure. We
missed her a great deal, although we still managed
to see her on the way from school, if only to exchange
a quick hug and a kiss. Later on, Ecia started a little
catering business for weddings in our town. Mania replaced
Ecia, but she didn't get along with Pawlinka, so Pawlinka
left shortly after and was succeeded by Karola. When
the war broke out, we had to leave our beloved Zaleszczyki.
Pawlinka and Karola were in tears as they said goodbye
to us. I remember that Karola, a single mother of two,
was weeping as she kept saying in Ukrainian: "Moja
mama mene lyszajet" (My mother is leaving me).
It was during the financial crisis of 1934 that my
uncle Josio died, leaving behind his wife Esther and
three children without any means of support. My parents
and grandmother provided them with a monthly allowance
to help them survive. Within a year Esther passed away
too. Relatives took in the children. Klara, who was
fourteen at the time, went to live with my grandmother.
My mother's sister took in ten-year-old Minka, and
my mother brought the youngest, Jasia, home to live
with us. From that moment, Jasia in effect became my
younger sister. She clung to me and became my pal.
Her first words upon entering our home were: "Where's
Mila?" We had a lot in common, since we were both second-class
members of the family. Like me, Jasia wore hand-me-downs.
We both adored Lola, who was put on a pedestal by all
of us. We took it for granted that she had to be the
pampered one in the family. She was attractive and
had a taste for stylish dresses. A good student, she
was also neat and well organized, unlike Jasia and
I. Lola was also a great cook and showed much imagination
in creating intriguing dishes.
It was this talent of hers that later saved our lives.
Only now, when I think back to the the
time when Jasia joined our family after the tragic
loss of her parents, and after being separated from
her sisters, do I realize how much she must have missed
her mother, and how lonely she must have felt. I don't
think that my affection and companionship could have
been a substitute for her great loss.
My sister Ziuta was not a happy person.
She would have been quite a good-looking girl had it
not been for her long nose. She seldom smiled, thinking
that it would make her nose seem even longer. She had
large gray eyes, soft blond hair, shapely legs, and
an exceptionally nice figure. An accomplished pianist,
she was endowed with a lyrical soprano voice and had
a good ear for music. I loved her singing, and enjoyed
listening to her playing the piano. She studied at
the Lwów Conservatory, where one of her Italian voice
teachers predicted she would have a promising future.
Ziuta also loved to dance, moving gracefully to waltzes,
mazurkas, polkas, and krakowiaks. She was an avid painter,
covering our walls with her landscapes and still-life
Ziuta married David (Dunek) Wasserman
in August of 1928. According to the custom at the time,
Dunek was promised a substantial dowry in U.S. dollars.
The market crash of 1929 ruined my father and he was
not able to entirely fulfill his commitment. Dunek
was a talented and skilful physician. Ziuta did not
want to compete with him and lived mostly in his shadow.
After marrying Dunek, she stopped singing, playing
the piano, and painting. By nature, Ziuta was brave
and determined. It was largely because of her that
Dunek survived the typhoid fever he had contracted
in Czerniowce right after the German retreat. Ziuta
refused to allow him to be taken to the hospital where
he would have certainly perished. Instead, she kept
him at home, watching over him day and night, giving
him serum injections when he became too weak to do
On April 8, 1932 was born Anusia, the only daughter
of Dunek and Ziuta.
She was our "oczko w glowie" (the apple of our eye).
We thought she was the most beautiful child in the
world. When Mrs. Kessler, our neighbour, claimed Anusia
was not as pretty as Shirley Temple, we were outraged.
We thought Mrs. Kessler had to be mean and blind to
say such a thing.
Anusia lived in Kolomyja with her parents
but spent most of her time in our house in Zaleszczyki.
She would come early in the spring and leave when the
cold weather arrived. The day of her departure was
always a sad one. Tears streamed down our faces as
she left. Anusia loved
us and was very happy in our home. Back in Kolomyja,
she always caught a cold, strep throat, or an ear infection.
In 1939, she completed her first grade at a Polish
elementary school. In September of that same year,
the Russians demoted everyone by two years - to harmonize
the Polish system with the Russian system of education.
As a result, Anusia landed in a Ukrainian kindergarten.
When the Germans invaded Poland, Anusia had just finished
her first grade at a Ukrainian school.
DR. DAVID WASSERMAN (Dunek)
Dunek was 32 when he married my sister,
Ziuta, who was not yet 20. He was a physician and worked
in the village of Kosmacz in the Carpathian mountains.
He would visit the mountain huts on horseback, tending
to people in the area. On one occasion, Dunek saved
the lives of a mother and her newborn baby. He stopped
the mother's heavy bleeding, but the infant appeared
to be stillborn. To revive the baby, he prepared two
tubs of water, one cold, one warm, and repeatedly immersed
the newborn first in one and then the other, until
it began to cry. After that, Dunek was considered a
miracle worker. In appreciation of his medical services
to the villagers, the elders of the village applied
for an official government decoration for Dunek.
It is said that in the mid-nineteenth
century, almost the entire population of the Hucul
village of Kosmacz was infected with syphilis, supposedly
spread by the Russian soldiers stationed there during
the military campaign of 1848 to assist Austria against
the Hungarian uprising. This epidemic led to Dunek's
specialization in venereal diseases. He chose to study
at medical schools in Vienna and Paris, where the most
advanced research in the field was being done. After
completing his studies, Dunek and his family settled
in Kolomyja, where he had a successful medical practice.
He continued to travel to the Hucul villages of Kosmacz
and Peczenizyn twice a week to look after his patients.
They did not forget him during the Nazi plague and
wanted to rescue him and his family. We were later
told that the Huculs came to Kolomyja to carry him
away to safety, but by then Dunek and his family were
already in hiding.
After settling in Kolomyja, with my father's
help Dunek acquired a car to enable him to continue
his medical visits to the mountain villages. The car,
a 1929 Chevrolet, broke down regularly, but Dunek proved
to be as good a mechanic as he was a physician. He
was often seen bent over his car or stretched out under
it, repairing some malfunction. He could dismantle
the car and put it back together again whenever necessary.
In those days, when repair garages were scarce, his
mechanical ability stood him in good stead. Alongside
his medical studies, he studied art and drawing. He
was a gifted painter and draftsman, winning first prize
at the doctors' art exhibit. His art teacher was Mr.
Bremkiewicz, a former pupil of the famous Polish painter
Jan Matejko. Dunek was a true renaissance man. He loved
music and conducted his imaginary orchestra while listening
to concert recordings. In those days of doom and gloom,
Dunek, also a gifted comedian, cheered us up by improvising
little sketches in which he played either a poor tailor
courting a girl, or a tinker wandering from village
to village, repairing people's pots and pans while
claiming to be a genius.
Dunek, had a working knowledge of twelve
languages: Polish, Ukrainian, German, Russian, Romanian,
Spanish, French, Yiddish, Hebrew, Portuguese, Czech,
and English. In 1935, as a delegate to an International
Conference in Budapest, he delivered, on behalf of
the Polish Dermatological Society, a paper on the Polish
public health system. In May 1956, at the International
Symposium on Venereal Diseases in Washington, D.C.,
he read from his paper on the Control of Venereal Diseases
in Turkey. At the time, Dunek was a prominent authority
in the field of venereal diseases in Poland, and later
in Canada, where he settled with his family. Long after
his retirement, Toronto hospitals continued to call
on Dunek, seeking his help as a renowned diagnostician.
Outliving both his wife and his beloved daughter, Anusia,
he passed away at the beautiful age of 96. Sadly, he
left no records of his exceptionally rich experiences.
I remember when my three-month-old niece
Annie, the only daughter of my sister Ziuta and Dunek,
visited us for the first time in 1932. Everyone immediately
fell in love with her and thought she was a most beautiful
child. Everyone, except Pawlinka. She glanced at Annie
and pronounced: "Ladna, ale to nie Milinka" (Pretty,
but she's no Milinka).
In the nightmarish years that followed, there were
no schools or textbooks. Anusia begged me to teach
her. Having just graduated from high school, I was
able to tutor her to a certain extent, but I found
it very difficult to concentrate on teaching given
that we were living in stressful, anxiety-ridden times.
Anusia, imploring me with her big blue eyes, used to
say: "Mila, please give me a lesson."
I did my best under the circumstances and taught her
grammar, syntax, arithmetic (including fractions),
some botany, Greek mythology, and Egyptian history.
Like a sponge, she absorbed everything, learning and
remembering the previous day's lesson word for word.
Later, in 1944, when the Russians succeeded
in pushing back the Germans, she and her family ended
up in Czerniowce. Her parents immediately hired a private
tutor for her, and after a few months, she was ready
to enter the fifth grade in a Russian school in Czerniowce.
In April of 1945, before the end of the school year,
we left the city together for Romania.
In Bucharest, Anusia attended a Polish school for refugees
for a year. Then, in the fall of 1946, she entered
a Romanian International High School. The Romanian
schools had high standards and were quite demanding.
Anusia worked diligently and did well. We moved to
Prague in the spring of 1947, where she enrolled in
a Czech International High School. This did not trouble
her greatly since the Czech language is similar to
Polish. Then, in the spring of 1948, we left Europe
for South America - first to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,
for three months, and later to Asuncion, Paraguay.
Anusia began her Spanish education in the fall of 1948.
Initially, she couldn't understand spoken Spanish,
but by the end of the school year, she was at the top
of her class. We left Paraguay and finally reached
Montreal on July 1, 1949. In the fall of that year,
Anusia began her last year of high school at Baron
Bing High School, from which she graduated with flying
colours. She later obtained her B.A. in Toronto and
did a year of social work. I was by her side during
all those trying and extraordinary years of growing
Both Anusia and I got married in 1953.
When she met Leslie, she said, "I am starting my life,"
and when I met Izio, I was able to say for the first
time that I was glad to have made it out alive. The
four of us were very close and devoted to each other.
They resided in Toronto while we lived in Montreal.
Every visit with them was wonderful. Their daughter,
Frances, was born in 1957, and two years later, they
had a son, Michael. (To mark our close friendship,
when later Michael had his own daughter, he named her
Mila-Anusia.) When Frances was two, her parents realized
she had a serious hearing impairment. Then followed
the difficult years of teaching Frances lip-reading
and the use of her residual hearing with the help of
a hearing aid. The bulk of this work fell to Anusia.
It was a tremendous task that took a great deal of
effort and perseverance. Mother and daughter were both
strong-willed and the lessons often ended up in tears.
Anusia wanted to prepare Frances for the "hearing"
world. For this reason, she took her out of the school
for the deaf and enrolled her in a regular school,
forcing her to put her utmost effort into listening.
When Frances reached the age of ten, her mother was
diagnosed with a brain tumour. The next nine years
were filled with hope and despair, punctuated by hospital
stays, numerous operations, radiation, and chemotherapy
sessions. Throughout this ordeal, Anusia continued
to teach her daughter to speak. Her hope was that Frances
would lead as close to a normal life as possible.
Anusia passed away at the age of 45, leaving
a void in our lives. She was my most cherished companion,
and I loved her with all my heart. Frances went on
to finish high school, and later, college. In 2004,
she travelled to China with her father to adopt a daughter,
Diana. Today she is an active member of the Baha'i
community. Every month, Frances sends out a health
bulletin worldwide over the Internet. She also lectures
on speech therapy. Anusia achieved her goal.
Zaleszczyki High School had restricted
enrolment for Jewish and Ukrainian kids. This regulation
did not come from the local administration, but from
outside authorities. Our director, Mieczyslaw Zawalkiewicz,
was a fair-minded person with a warm personality, well
liked and respected by all the students. My sister,
Lola, once told me how the director, in response to
her smart answer to a question, had commented, "Panna
do tanca i ró˝anca" (A girl for both dance and prayer),
having watched her at the previous night's school dance.
Agnieszka Przeworowna taught us Polish literature.
She was talented and intelligent, and instilled in
us an enduring love for the richness of Polish literature,
in particular, an appreciation for poetry. She directed
and staged plays and was also the head of Hufiec, an
organization for the military training of women.
In the spring of 1938, Agnieszka announced
that there would be a summer training camp on the Baltic
Coast for members of the Hufiec from all over Poland.
With great enthusiasm, my friend, Lusia Rosenbaum,
and I signed up for what seemed like an exciting experience.
But it was not meant to be. That very year two sisters
arrived at our school. Their father, a military man,
had been transferred from Lwów to Zaleszczyki. With
them the sisters brought anti-Semitism, hitherto little
known in our school. On hearing that Lusia and I had
enlisted for the summer camp, they loudly protested
that they were not going to tolerate two Jewish girls
joining them at the camp. Lusia and I promptly removed
our names from the list of participants. I still remember
how much it hurt, and how sad the incident made me
feel. I also remember Agnieszka's remarks to the two
sisters: "I am ashamed of you two, and I am ashamed
of your ideas." It is ironic that out of all the friendly
kids at our school, these two sisters should land in
Canada, where I live today.
There were many good youngsters at our school. One
was Jadzia Trofimowna, a top student and friend, with
whom I shared a bench for four years during my high
school years. She used to correct my spelling, which
was my weak spot. She is a retired physician now and
lives in Krakow. I visited her in 1988, and we are
still in touch. Lola's best friend was Wladyslawa "Dziunka"
Nedilenko. Dziunka and Lola were inseparable. She was
always at our house banging on the piano for hours.
My parents loved her. My father used to say jokingly,
"I couldn't love her any more, even if she were Jewish."
Dziunka's mother claimed to be a descendant of Tadeusz
Kosciuszko, the great Polish freedom fighter of the
nineteenth century. She was a wonderful cook and pastry
maker. Lola picked up some of her skills from her.
During the Nazi occupation, Dziunka used to send us
one-kilo regulation parcels of food. I remember her
egg noodles, corn meal, and sugar lumps.
September 3, 1937 was the start of a new
I was thirteen years old. The new Latin teacher, Professor
Franciszek Holovaty, was assigned to our class as an
extracurricular supervisor. Holovaty's mission was
to revive the dead language by speaking to us in Latin.
He dwelled on the complicated structures of Latin grammar.
He would ask us, for instance, "Quas formas ponemus
in sententias interogativas post cum narativum?" (What
forms are used in sentences ending with a question
mark after the word "when?") The answer, of course,
had to be delivered in faultless Latin. He kept a black
notebook in which he marked our grades. We feared him
and our hearts would skip a beat every time he opened
his book to ask one of us: "Dicat mihi." (". will tell
me."), which was followed by the victim's name. Professor
Holovaty, or Franio, as we called him, at one point
decided that our class needed an orchestra. His wish
being our command, we all looked for the least expensive
instrument to buy, which at that time happened to be
the mandolin. Franio then told us that for Armistice
Day on November 11, we were going to give a concert!
The program was to be a medley of Polish legionnaires'
tunes. In the short time between September and November,
we rehearsed almost daily. Our maestro was a gifted
eighteen-year-old violinist from the graduating class
by the name of Zbigniew Jankowski. During the early
rehearsals, the noises we made sounded more like cats
in heat in March than anything else. But as the 11th
of November approached, one could clearly distinguish
the familiar melodies of the Polish army's marching
On the evening of Armistice Day, we found
ourselves assembled on stage - petrified. The curtain
rose. Jankowski crossed himself and began to count:
"One, two, three, play!" Not a sound escaped from our
instruments. We had frozen with stage fright. Our conductor
hissed if a little too loudly: "Jezus Maria, PLAY."
Then one brave soul timidly sounded the first note
and slowly, one after another, others joined in to
catch up. Somehow we managed to finish almost together.
Then came the applause: it was tremendous. To this
day, I still don't know whether the applause was in
appreciation of our skill or courage, or just to please
THE END OF AN ERA
The summer of 1939 was warm, sunny, and
beautiful. The Zaleszczyki beaches were crowded with
vacationers as usual. We spent almost every day at
the beach with friends. The loudspeakers played feel-good
tunes and people seemed to be content. Then, in August,
urgent announcements began to interrupt the pleasant
music. They would begin with, "Attention, attention.,"
followed by someone's name and military rank, asking
them to report to their army unit. The air was starting
to fill with forebodings of imminent war. An appeal
was launched for donations in cash or valuables such
as jewelry to raise funds for "The National Fund for
Armaments." The names of donors were announced on the
loudspeakers and I was proud to hear my mother's name
mentioned. Toward the end of August, the tourists left
and the beaches became noticeably less crowded, but
we, the locals, continued to enjoy our last summer
at the beach.
On the first of September, as we awoke,
we realized the electric lights were on. We only received
electricity at night, so we knew immediately that something
important was happening. We turned on the radio for
news. The war had begun. The Germans had already crossed
the Polish border and were sowing death and destruction
on their ruthless march to occupy the country. The
radio announcer kept talking about how our brave army
was fighting to halt the enemy, peppering the commentary
with reports of sporadic victories. Often, the news
was interrupted by coded announcements: "Uwaga, uwaga
nadchodzi." (Attention, attention, it's coming.), followed
by a secret code. Our neighbour owned a powerful Telefunken
radio and could listen to the news from Prague. His
face told us that the reports were grim. Shortly thereafter,
German planes flew over our town, dropping bombs on
the Romanian side and killing several people. Then
came the encouraging news: France and England had declared
war on Germany. We were elated, but the German war
machine kept on swallowing Poland.
Our house sat on the main road, leading
to the bridge that connected us with Romania. The Romanian
government gave the order to open the border and people
began crossing to the other side. From our balcony,
we watched lines of Mercedes, Opels, Studebakers, and
other luxury cars bearing diplomatic plates crossing
the bridge into Romania. Then came the private cars,
followed by people on foot, dragging their belongings.
Originally, my sister Ziuta and her family
also intended to cross the border. They arrived from
Kolomyja, sixty kilometres away, in two cars, their
own and a rented car. It was agreed that Lola, who
was twenty at the time, would join them, while the
rest of the family would stay behind. My parents' reasoning
being that since they were old (my father was 57, my
mother 53), the Germans would not harm them, just as
they imagined that the Germans would spare Jasia and
I since we were still very young, and therefore safe!
Another important reason for my father's decision to
stay was the fact that his business had recently began
to recover from the Depression and he did not want
to leave it unattended.
In assessing the situation, my parents
used their own yardstick, one based on their experiences
from World War I, when France and England defeated
the Germans and the Polish army pushed back the Bolsheviks.
They were certain that history would repeat itself
and saw no need to leave everything behind and run
to Romania. In fact, in our backyard there were two
cars, two good horses, and a wagon. It would have been
very easy to load them up and cross the bridge many
times back and forth, especially since we lived a mere
200 metres from the old border. We could have loaded
the wagon with all our possessions, valuables, and
sacks of grain that were stored in warehouses near
our house. But we stayed in Zaleszczyki because, above
all, my parents feared homelessness.
And we weren't the only ones who didn't
leave. Not many locals took the road to cross the river.
The fact that so few people from our town joined the
stream of refugees crossing the border was testimony
to our deep attachment to Zaleszczyki. Among the few
who did leave town, I recall Baron Turnau and his family,
who later landed in Rhodesia, where he settled and
operated a Laundromat; the head of our district, Jozef
Krzyzanowski, who became the Consul General of Poland
in Bucharest; my cousins, Neta and Mark Heller, and
I also remember a retarded couple, Cyraly
and Pesie, who also left Zaleszczyki. They were from
among the very poor in our town. There was a Jewish
custom to pair off mentally disadvantaged individuals
from poor families as it was believed to be a good
deed. Their arranged marriage took place under a canopy
and was blessed by a rabbi. The townspeople collected
some furniture, dishes, and bedding for them. It was
these two whom my mother spotted in the crowd waiting
to cross the bridge into Romania. She stopped them
and asked, "Are you crazy? Where are you going?" To
which they replied: "Crazy are the ones who stay behind."
Cyraly and Pesie survived the war in Romania, in conditions
that were pure luxury for them. They received a monthly
allowance from the state, just like the other refugees.
In the meantime, the stream of people
crossing the bridge over to Romania turned into a river.
Soon army units joined the civilians. It was a sad
sight to see young soldiers dragging their feet from
hunger and exhaustion. Our cook, Mania, baked lots
of buns that I handed out to the soldiers. Then, just
as Dunek, Ziuta, Anusia, and Lola finally decided to
join the crowd and were getting ready to leave for
Romania, the news reached us that the Soviet Army had
crossed the eastern border to "protect us." Ziuta and
her family changed their plans and returned to Kolomyja,
taking Jasia with them. The Russians arrived in our
town on September 17th. In the beginning, they were
seen as the lesser of two evils. Once the Russians
rolled in, they immediately closed the border by posting
a tank and armed guards on the bridge. After that,
the border was sealed.
Thus began our sad life full of regrets
about missed opportunities. Shortly after the Russians
occupied Zaleszczyki, a cavalcade of trucks emptied
out all the grain bins my father had stored in warehouses
after the summer harvest. I overheard my father telling
my mother: "Even if the war ends tomorrow, I am ruined."
The deportation to Siberia and arrests
started later. Many members of my family were arrested
and their properties confiscated. We feared that our
father would be imprisoned and deported as well, so
in the spring of 1940, Ziuta and her husband took our
family to live with them in their small apartment in
Kolomyja. Leaving our home was a devastating experience.
I dreamt about my home for a long time, missing our
old life there.
The apartment was too small for all of
us, so when in the spring of 1941 Klara, Jasia's oldest
sister, got married, she suggested that Jasia go to
live with her in Czortków.
We didn't want Jasia to leave us, but my brother-in-law,
Dunek, insisted that we were overcrowded, and that
it would be better for the sisters to be together.
I recall we cried bitterly when Jasia left. Even my
father, who seldom showed any emotions, shed tears.
Shortly after war broke out between the Soviet Union
and Nazi Germany, Klara's husband was drafted into
the Soviet army. Jasia took this opportunity to return
to Kolomyja. It was the happiest day for me, when,
in the midst of terrible times, Jasia appeared on our
doorstep. There was no end of kissing and hugging.
There was also no question of ever letting her leave
us again. From that day on, she shared with us every
morsel of food, our every hope and despair. Only then
I understood how much she meant to me. She moved with
us into the ghetto, where we shared a room with six
other people. Jasia was with us on the death train
KOLOMYJA: CLASS OF 1941
I was in my last year of high school when
we fled our home in the spring of 1940 and went to
live with my sister, her husband, and their daughter.
By then, it was clear that my father, being a fairly
wealthy industrialist, would soon be arrested and exiled
Once in Kolomyja, I registered at a Polish
high school, where a majority of the students were
Jewish. I was immediately welcomed and befriended by
every one of them. They were a remarkable group of
bright youngsters, ambitious and determined to go on
to university so as to achieve prominent positions
in life. Here in Kolomyja, we were all poor. Nobody
had money to pay for college. In order to obtain a
university scholarship, one had to be a straight-A
student. We all worked very hard and helped each other
with schoolwork. There were 26 students in our class,
some of them exceptionally gifted. All of them were
determined to succeed. We were only four girls, but
we worked hard to keep up with the boys. I don't recall
all of their names, but my thoughts go back to Jonek
Miller, whom I planned to marry. He was the top student
in all subjects: science, languages, literature, and
sports. In those days, giving a helping hand to other
students was not considered cheating. On the contrary,
it was a sign of magnanimity. Jonek was a genius. After
handing in his exam papers, he would immediately distribute
the correct answers to those who needed them. His best
buddy, an equally gifted student, Dziunek Klaffe, was
a refugee from Vienna. Dziunek was a hunchback, but
this didn't make him bitter. He excelled in literature
and wrote beautiful poems in both German and Polish.
Then there was Langer, who wanted to be an actor. I
can still see his handsome face as he recited long
lines of poetry with power and emotion. Sammy Wiener
was a great comedian. He was particularly funny as
Moliere's "Malade imaginaire." Watching him on stage
brought us to tears and laughter. One of my classmates
was a concert pianist - unfortunately, I have forgotten
his name - it might have been Bretler. He used to entertain
us during the school dances with his great rhythmic
tunes. Another boy had a talent for drawing. His sketches
and drawings of human figures in motion covered our
I remember the Sonnenschein brothers, both top students
destined for scholarships, planning to study medecine.
By the end of May, exams were over and we were planning
to stage the play "Platon Kreczet" by Alexander Korneychuk.
Langer and I were given the leading roles. We were
also planning a big dance, a prom. But the year was
1941 and Hitler had other plans for us. On the 22 of
June, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and in a single
stroke erased the future of our entire class, turning
our lives upside down.
The first among us to disappear was Dziunek
Klaffe, who ran away to Russia. I lost contact with
all the others, except for Jonek. Jonek used to come
to our house with books for me to read. He was still
hoping and planning a future for us. The last time
he came around was in October of 1941. "When will I
see you again?" he asked, as we were saying goodbye
at the front door. He then added with a bitter smile:
"It's difficult to make plans these days." Jonek was
caught the next day, along with many others, during
a raid on Mokra Street. A few days later, he and thousands
of others were shot in a forest near the village of
Szeparowce. Jonek was eighteen years old. He was buried
in a mass grave, with a picture of me in his breast
pocket. I dreamed of him many times, sitting at the
foot of my bed.
I don't know how the rest of my classmates
I know only that almost none of them survived the war.
Years later, a friend of mine who spent the war years
in the Soviet Union told me about a hunchback he had
met there who taught German, to whom he occasionally
brought a bowl of soup. It might have been Dziunek
Klaffe, the poet.
Another classmate was Czesio Kruszelnicki,
a Catholic who had a crush on me. He saved the life
of Mira, a Jewish girl whom he later married. Another
from the class of 1941 was Zosia Huber, of German origin.
I ran into her again in 1942, that dreadful year, as
I was walking down the middle of the street leading
to the ghetto - Jews were forbidden to use the sidewalks.
On my arm, I wore the Star of David. In a spontaneous
gesture of protest and camaraderie, Zosia approached
me, grabbed my arm, covering the armband with her coat,
and pushed me over to the sidewalk so we could talk.
I can only wonder what would have become
of my classmates had the horrors and madness of war
not taken away their futures by ending their lives.
I will always remember all of you.
On June 22nd, we awoke to the roar of
bombers flying overhead and the sounds of explosions
coming from the direction of the railway station. We
heard over the radio the shocking news that the Germans
had invaded Soviet Russia. The attack came to us as
a complete surprise. We had known about the Ribbentrop-Molotov
Non-Aggression Pact, and could not imagine that such
a violation could occur. The evacuation of all Soviet
citizens and members of the Communist Party began within
hours. Evacuating to Russia was simply unthinkable
for us. Doom and gloom spread their menacing wings
over our lives. The Soviet army took a few days to
withdraw. Then a glimmer of hope appeared. Instead
of the German army, a Hungarian Unit entered Kolomyja
and occupied the main Administration Offices. We spent
a few relatively calm weeks under the Hungarian occupation.
They recruited a number of men to clear the bombed-out
railway station, but on the whole the people working
there were treated well, and were even given some bread.
One picture of this short-lived occupation
is engraved in my memory. The balcony of the apartment
in Kolomyja faced the Ukrainian church and the large
lawn surrounding it. The Hungarian army occupied the
presbytery of the church. One beautiful summer evening,
soldiers and officers were sitting on the lawn around
bonfires, where geese were roasting on the spit. One
soldier picked up a violin and began to play a hauntingly
sad melody. A few other soldiers picked up the tune.
From the balcony where I was standing, I could see
men crying. Tears began to run down my own cheeks.
Years later, while living in Transylvania, I heard
that very same melody. Someone told me the song was
called "The Last Letter". Shortly afterwards, the Hungarian
unit marched to the front to be slaughtered by the
Soviet forces; the Gestapo took over Kolomyja and the
I remember the day in the summer of 1941,
when I first encountered German brutality. Our town
of Kolomyja had already come under German occupation.
The news spread rapidly about the fate of the thousands
of Hungarian Jews of Polish origin expelled from their
homes. The Germans had drowned many of those trying
to cross the Dniestr River to reach Poland. Only a
few hundred survivors somehow managed to reach Kolomyja.
Our community, shocked by this inhuman treatment, tried
to help ease the misery of these survivors.
Under German occupation, food was scarce
and rationed. To provide the survivors with food, the
Jewish community assigned them to various homes. One
such family, a couple with a little girl named Ewa,
was assigned to our family. They came everyday. Ewa
was a very pretty five year old. She had big, dark,
sparkling eyes trimmed with long lashes. She was always
smiling. Her black hair swept down over her little
arms in soft beautiful waves. She was full of life,
running and playing games, hugging and kissing her
parents, moving and chattering endlessly. It was obvious
that Ewa was like any normal, happy child brought up
with loving attention. I couldn't understand her as
she spoke only Hungarian. I just looked at her smiling,
happy face, and smiled back. We seemed to understand
each other without words.
When the family came to our house, the parents held
the little girl by the hand. The parents were silent
and grief-stricken, while Ewa seemed merry and lively.
I could see how they were doing all they could to spare
their little daughter the grief and hardship of their
situation. I would often notice the parents putting
away a part of their meal for the child's supper or
One day, in the winter of 1941, Ewa showed
up accompanied only by her father. She stood there
silently. Her big, dark eyes expressed bewilderment.
She kept very close to her father and would not leave
his side for a moment. She no longer smiled and not
a sound came from her little lips. The father told
me his wife had been killed on the street by a German
By the spring of 1942, we had to leave
our homes and move to a crowded ghetto. We couldn't
take much with us, and very soon hunger began to gnaw
at our insides. The food we could share with Ewa and
her father was meagre, but they kept coming anyway.
I can still remember them standing in the doorway,
waiting, the father looking thin and aged, and the
little girl staring straight at me, not uttering a
sound, just looking, her eyes pleading: "Will you give
me something to eat today? Perhaps a potato, a piece
of bread, some warm soup."
One gray fall day, Ewa stood alone in
the doorway. Horror and panic reflected in her face.
She was a frightened child, all alone and helpless
in a strange world. Her eyes begging for answers: "What
is happening around me? Why did they take my parents
away from me? Why am I always hungry?" I did not have
any answers, nor could I help her.
I saw Ewa a few more times. One time I
hardly recognized her. Her beautiful dark hair was
gone, shaved to the scalp, but her face remained beautiful.
Her wide-open eyes seemed to take up half of her face.
The bewildered look was still there. She was swollen
from hunger and could barely walk.
A few days later, on a cold October day,
I saw Ewa for the last time in the big town square,
together with six thousand other people herded together,
awaiting to be transported to the gas chambers. Ewa
sat on the brown sparse grass, shivering from cold
and fright. She was panic-stricken and understood that
something terrible was going to happen to her. Now
they were going to kill her, just as they had killed
her mother and father. Ewa was weeping.
Today, so many years after your death, my little Ewa,
I still hear your childish, trembling voice calling
out: "Anyukam" (Mama), and I see your big, black, terror-filled
THE GARDEN (MAY - AUGUST 1942)
Every morning, we had to report to the
Arbeitsplatz (work assignment square), where we were
assigned to various daily tasks, such as washing windows,
cleaning offices and schools, or sorting metal in warehouses.
In early May, a group of ten people was ordered to
dig up a large plot of land to plant potatoes. The
land belonged to a house occupied by Louise Kaiser,
secretary to the mayor. It was one of the few modern
houses in Kolomyja equipped with indoor plumbing. After
the potatoes were planted, the whole group was dismissed,
except for my sister Lola and myself, who were given
the task of planting some vegetables and arranging
a flower garden. We worked there until the end of August.
I loved gardening. Planting seeds, watching
plants grow, even watching lawns turn green and healthy
gave me the feeling of living a normal life. I weeded,
dug holes, watered the plants and generally enjoyed
seeing life germinate in that garden. From time to
time, I was called to the house to wash big loads of
laundry. At such times, the cook was told to give me
something to eat. In the evening, we marched back to
the starving and dying ghetto. Once, Louise Kaiser
gave us coupons for a few loaves of bread. On another
occasion, I recall her having visitors from Germany:
her mother and her six-year-old daughter. They must
have been talking about the starving people in the
ghetto because the little girl followed me around the
garden all day long before gathering up the courage
to get close enough to me to reveal a piece of bread
covered with butter that she had carried under her
apron. She then asked me: "Magst du das?" ("Would you
like this?"). She was just a little girl, but she gave
me more than just a piece of bread. For a moment, she
stilled my hunger for human decency.
There was a garage in the courtyard of
Louise Kaiser's house. The car parked inside belonged
to the mayor of Kolomyja. In the room adjacent to the
garage lived the mayor's driver and his pregnant wife,
Agnieszka. She was a good gardener and often instructed
us on how to tend to the flowers and vegetables. Agnieszka
and her husband were Poles, refugees from someplace
in Wielkopolska. They had lost everything in a bombing
raid in 1939. They were both very decent, loving people,
and they really struggled to make ends meet. One day,
Agnieszka decided she wanted to make us an apple cake.
She set aside some eggs and sugar, but it took her
some time to gather the necessary ingredients. In the
end, she treated us to a divine, mouth-watering delight.
I am sure that upon hearing about the liquidation of
the ghetto, Agnieszka mourned for us. I wish I could
have told her that we survived, and kept the memory
of her kindness and affection.
It was in 1933 that my father leased the
estate called Gródek from Count Dunin-Borkowski for
the last time. The farm had its own distillery for
producing alcohol from potatoes. At the time, the Polish
government held the monopoly for the purchase of alcohol.
This meant that the entire production of vodka had
to be sold to the government. From time to time, my
father would bring a bottle or two home for his own
consumption. Making wine and other spirits was a hobby
of his. There were always a few glass balloons filled
with fermenting fruit on the windowsills in one of
the rooms. He often made a delicious blueberry liquor
called afiniac by covering blueberries with alcohol
and sugar. He used the same natural process to make
wisniak, an equally tasty sour cherry drink. The most
exquisite elixir of all was the one in which he soaked
walnuts, still in their green shell, in alcohol. The
result was the most delightful nut liquor of a deep
golden colour called orzechówka (walnut liquor). He
stored all these homemade wines and liquors in a niche
in the cellar.
When, in 1940, we had to leave our home,
all this wonderful liquor was left behind. All but
two bottles of the precious orzechówka, which my father
carried with him to the ghetto, in the hope that they
would be opened at his daughters' - Lola's and mine
- respective weddings. When he finally realized that
his dream would not come true, and that sooner or later
the bottles would fall into the hands of the Germans,
he decided to open them. With great sadness, he broke
off the red lacquer seals and shared with us that dark,
golden delight, his prized "orzechówka". We drank my
father's elixir mixed with our own tears, in a sombre
mood saturated with fear and despair, rather than one
of joyful festivity, for which it had been intended.
At one point, the Germans ordered us to
hand over all valuables made of gold, silver, or precious
stones. Only a token of these was actually delivered
to them. Most of our cutlery, trays, silver tea glass
holders, and other flatware were given for safekeeping
to acquaintances. Dunek took some of my mother's and
Ziuta's jewelry, placed it in two boxes, covered each
with cement, and buried the two "stones" under a tree.
When he learned that we had jumped off the death train
and were living in Chodorów, he gave our friend Albin
instructions on how to find the tree. Albin succeeded
in finding the "stones." He handed one to Dunek, who
was in hiding, and brought the other one to Lwów, where
we were living at that time. Our "stone" contained
two pairs of diamond earrings. Albin sold a one-carat
earring, which helped us survive for several months
before Albin and I started to earn some money. After
the German retreat, we tried to recover some of the
valuables left with our "acquaintances." In most cases,
we did not succeed. They had all kinds of excuses for
not giving them back.
In the fall of 1941, we had a few visits
from the SS, who were setting up a command post in
Kolomyja. Following each visit, we had to deliver the
household items they had chosen. Later, another German
order was issued, demanding that all pieces of fur,
including winter fur coats and collars, be handed over
along with any woollen yarn. We knitted day and night
to use up all the woollen yarn, instead of turning
it over to the Germans. Almost every Jewish family
had some object made of gold or silver in their possession.
Rather than delivering these to the Germans, they buried
them in the ground, hoping to dig them up some day.
As a result, Poland's soil holds many family treasures:
a testimony to terrible times filled with fear, horror,
and pain, but a testimony to the many thousands who
hoped of some day retrieving these mementoes of happier
times. Their owners cannot claim them back. They are
If we were luckier than others, and had
somehow managed to survive that hell on earth, it was
because of our friend, Albin. The saga began in the
summer of 1941. The Nazi forces had occupied Kolomyja,
where we lived at the time. One day, my sister Lola,
who was working at City Hall, brought home a visitor,
a co-worker of hers. Albin Thiel was in his late thirties,
tall, handsome, blond, and blue-eyed. Even though he
was a descendant of German settlers from a village
called Felizientahl, he considered himself a Polish
patriot. The story of Albin Thiel is the story of one
man's efforts to undo the harrowing spells of evil
times. It is a story of which legends are made. When
we met him, Albin had just separated from his wife,
Maria Kabanowska, and his infant daughter, Grazyna.
He was living in a rented room where he cooked his
meals on a hotplate. He appreciated my sister's culinary
skills, and shortly after she lost her job, Albin began
paying frequent visits and started taking care of us
At the time, our furs, jewelry, gold,
and silver had either been confiscated or were buried.
We survived by bartering household items for food.
Albin took over this critical task. He visited our
home almost daily, bringing fresh produce from the
market. He would bike to and from villages up in the
Carpathian mountains to bring us cheese, butter, and
meat. For our food, especially after moving to the
ghetto, we depended entirely on Albin's assistance
Winters in Kolomyja were more severe than
in our hometown of Zaleszczyki. During the fall and
winter of 1941, we all huddled around the single stove
that gave some heat. Albin and Dunek's patients provided
the wood we used for fuel. We kept hoping that this
nightmare would end soon. We listened to gossip - via
the PPP network - an abbreviation for "Pewna pani powiedzia?a,"
meaning, "A certain lady said to a certain lady." Albin
was our major source of real news, since he had access
to a clandestine radio. He would bring us the latest
information in order to give us hope and keep our spirits
THE KOLOMYJA GHETTO
The population of the Kolomyja ghetto
fluctuated. As large groups were transported to or
massacred in the forest, others arrived to take their
place. On average, 5000 people stayed there. The ghetto
was a part of the city that was walled off by wooden
fences. It was not difficult to jump the fence since
it was not as closely guarded as the Warsaw ghetto.
Other than at the entrance, there were no sentries
posted around the Kolomyja ghetto, but neither was
there a place to run to or hide.
In February of 1942, we were ordered to
move into the ghetto. We were at a loss and didn't
know how to transport our belongings. Albin showed
up with a four-wheel cart, loaded up our belongings,
and pushed the cart to the ghetto. He then helped us
to settle in a two-room apartment on the edge of the
ghetto. Dunek, Ziuta, and Anusia took one room, and
my parents, Lola, Jasia, and I occupied the other.
Later, Mrs. Abosh joined us.
Albin befriended the neighbour on the
"Aryan" side of the fence. Together, they fitted a
movable plank through the fence, which enabled Albin
to enter the ghetto unnoticed to bring us food. Horror
and starvation surrounded us; we were hungry and scared,
but thanks to Albin, we were surviving. Although not
quite starving, we were constantly hungry. The thought
of food was on our minds all the time; food was the
most frequent subject of our conversations; we talked
about what we ate before the war; what we would eat
if we survived, and described in detail the taste and
look of wiener schnitzel or plum cake. We literally
dreamt of food. Sometimes my mother prepared bread
cakes, called placek. We would each receive two small
flat pancakes, which we gulped down on the spot. Only
my father would eat half of his share, saving the other
half for later. At night, whenever he noticed that
one of us was too hungry to fall asleep, he would fish
out of his pocket the saved portion and give it to
us. We used to kid him about it, telling him that after
the war we would surely find bread cakes hidden in
all sorts of places.
In the ghetto, with little food to share
and a throng of people constantly begging for food,
my mother would take in a little child and wash and
clean her. She once took a sheet and made a dress for
a little girl who had nothing to wear. She kept up
our morale by keeping our rooms spotless, sweeping
the front steps in her long housecoat. I recall how
the skin on her arms sagged when she lifted them. Her
whole life in the ghetto was devoted to keeping us
all together and to show us her love in whatever ways
We were penniless. Only a few objects
of value were left for bartering. There were, however,
a number of people in the ghetto who were former shop
owners. Some of them still possessed colourful, woollen
shawls, which were highly valued by the Huculs, the
mountain people. Albin would take a few shawls, and
ride his bicycle up into the Carpathian mountains,
to a village called Zabie, where he would trade them
for butter and cheese. A trip there and back would
take him many hours and he was completely exhausted
after riding his overloaded bicycle back to the town.
Every time he returned safely, we would breathe a sigh
of relief. He was our guardian angel and we believed
that nothing bad could happen to us as long as Albin
Although the ghetto was shrinking, there
still were frequent raids and people continued to be
transported to the Belzec death camp. The ghetto was
a living hell. People died of hunger, a most painful
kind of death. Nightmarish figures crawled in the streets.
People with distended bodies walked on swollen, ulcerated
legs, puss oozing heavily from their open wounds. People
cried and moaned, begging for help, help that would
never come. The stench of dead bodies filled the air.
I recall a skeleton of a man in charge of collecting
the dead, leading a long wagon drawn by an emaciated
horse. The wagon was covered with a stained, dirty
canvas from underneath which legs and arms protruded.
In September of 1942, Dunek's father died
of prostate cancer. Dunek and my father received permission
to arrange for his burial at the cemetery located outside
the ghetto. When they returned, they looked profoundly
shaken. They simply could not find the words to describe
the scenes they had witnessed at the cemetery: the
mountains of decomposing bodies waiting to be buried,
the ravaged grave diggers who were trying to cope with
their wretched task, the choking stench of decaying
corpses. We lived there in the midst of these horrors.
Rumours about the liquidation of the ghetto
began to circulate. These were most probably leaked
by City Hall to the Judenrat, informing them that whoever
could, should leave the ghetto immediately and find
a hiding place. It was possible to obtain a permit
to work outside the ghetto. Germans needed people to
gather nettles from which cloth could be made. We managed
to obtain permits for the whole family, i.e. my parents,
Lola, Jasia, and I. Then each of the "fortunate" ones
with a permit marched out of the ghetto, equipped with
a large sack, a knife, and a pair of gloves to protect
the hands from the nettle leaves that secret a burning
acid. But we had absolutely no idea where to look for
nettles. This complete helplessness frightened us.
All of a sudden, Albin, our guardian angel, appeared
on his bicycle. He led us to the nearest forest, brought
us some food, prepared beds out of moss, and stayed
with us all night. Next day, he got in touch with a
farmer he knew and arranged a hiding place for us in
his hayloft. The farmer's wife brought us soup and
bread. We remained there on the farm in the hope of
outwitting the Germans during another major raid on
the ghetto in Kolomyja, in which thousands more were
rounded up and sent to Belzec. At some point, the farmer
became too frightened to keep us there any longer.
Albin somehow got hold of a truck and in the evening
took us back to Kolomyja, to his small room. He also
had access to a small storage space in the basement,
where he hid my parents and Jasia while I stayed upstairs
with Lola. We remained there for several days, until
there was a pause in the raids; then, one by one, we
sneaked back into our rooms in the ghetto.
THE LIQUIDATION OF THE KOLOMYJA GHETTO
On the night of October 9, 1942, Albin
returned from Zabie very late in the evening, with
plans for taking our whole family and a few other people
over the Carpathian mountains, through Zabie to Hungary,
where Jews were still living in their own homes. He
had it all figured out, including arrangements with
the guides. As it was too late, and Albin was very
tired, my mother suggested that he sleep in Ziuta and
Dunek's room that night, since the couple were permitted
to stay the night at Dunek's laboratory. He agreed
to stay the night and leave the ghetto in the morning
to go directly to his office. But things took a drastic
and unexpected turn. The next morning, October 10,
SS men with dogs surrounded the ghetto to begin its
liquidation. Albin could no longer leave through the
usual escape route. Albin always dressed neatly whenever
he was in the vicinity of the ghetto, and pretended
to be a member of the secret police. On that morning,
he dressed up and marched out of the building with
an assured stride and walked through the streets of
the ghetto, head held high, while other policemen saluted
him as he walked through the gate.
During the final German raid on the ghetto
on October 10, 1942, my parents, Lola, Jasia, Mrs.
Abosh, and I were all huddled together under the stairs.
Our hearts were filled with dread, fearing that the
end was near. When the axe blows revealed our hiding
place, we heard the words: "Hier sind die Juden," (Here
are the Jews). We were lined up in the backyard and
marched out to the square, where thousands of frightened
shadows were sitting on the brownish grass. The Germans
were trying to intimidate us, to scare us by pushing,
shouting, and hitting people over the head. After hours
of waiting, we were herded through the streets of Kolomyja
to the rail station. There, cattle cars were waiting
to take us to Belzec, the death camp. For some odd
reason, we were not made to undress as was sometimes
the case. Although we did not know about Auschwitz,
we had no illusions about . We knew we were going to
to die. We all prayed that our deaths would be swift,
painless, and without humiliation.
Perhaps the worst part of that train ride
was dozing off and dreaming of other places, followed
by the shock of reawakening, only to realize that we
were on our way to our death. I remember thinking that
I was not yet nineteen and would never know the feeling
of being with a man. I was resigned. Not Jasia. As
soon as the doors were slammed shut behind us, she
made her way through the crowd to the boarded-up window
and tried to find out how firmly the nails were embedded
in the planks. Olek, my former classmate, helped her
with this task. It took them many hours to loosen the
nails to make an opening big enough for a person to
squeeze through. When night fell, the discussion began
as to who would be the first to jump. My parents decided
to go to their death. They were tired of running and
hiding. They believed we would have a better chance
of survival without them. Mother was sitting in a corner,
sobbing and saying: "How will I know that my children
won't get hurt jumping out of a moving train?" My father
consoled her by saying: "When my children jump out
of the train, the angels will spread their wings to
soften the fall." My mother then tore up a handkerchief
in strips to tie our shoes to our feet. We gave them
the last pieces of bread we had in our pockets. We
hugged them for the last time, as if in a trance. Jasia
waited for Lola and me to jump first. Only when we
disappeared in the darkness of the night did she herself
squeeze through the opening. The fall seemed to take
a long time before I felt the gravel under my feet.
I was unharmed and lay quietly without moving as I
watched the phantom train disappear in the darkness.
On that train were my parents, going to their deaths.
No shots were fired by the guards on the
train. After a while, I started to run towards where
Lola had jumped. We fell into each other's arms, wailing.
Then we headed in the opposite direction to find Jasia,
who was slightly injured. Olek was not as lucky. We
found him lying near the rails, his leg broken in three
places. We tried to drag him to the relative safety
of the forest, but he was in a great deal of pain and
refused to be moved. He urged us to run away and told
us that as soon as we left he would take the cyanide
pill he had with him. Olek did not take the poison.
His parents, who had jumped as well, eventually found
their son lying by the tracks. They left him there
to run to a nearby village to get help despite the
risks. A peasant agreed to fetch Olek, but when they
returned to pick him up, they found Olek's body riddled
with bullets. His parents survived the ordeal. His
father lived until the end of the war, hoping he would
be killed somehow, but that didn't happen. He committed
suicide after the war. Olek's mother lived on. The
peasant, upon seeing Olek's handsome, youthful face,
had muttered: "I would have taken him as my own son."
We hid in the forest until the next morning,
when we met some Jews on their way to work. They told
us that we were near Chodorów, that the ghetto there
was still open, and that we could temporarily hide
there. In the Chodorów ghetto, the people welcomed
us with warmth and sympathy. They seemed to be better
off than the people in the Kolomyja ghetto. We were
fed and put to bed. They even arranged for a telegram
to be sent to Albin, with a coded message stating that
we were alive. Albin arrived the next day with some
clothes, money, and our papers. When he arrived, we
all broke down sobbing. He cried with us. He loved
my parents and mourned their fate.
OUR LIFE AS CATHOLICS
The Catholic church in Kolomyja was located
on Sobieski Street. Albin went to see the parish priest
and told him: "I have to save the lives of a number
of Jews. Will you help me?" The name of the priest
was Father Peciak. His reply to Albin was: "You provide
me with the names of people living in Kolomyja from
the town registry, and I'll get you copies of the birth
certificates." It was only later that we learned that
Father Peciak had made out numerous birth certificates
to help many people.
After spending a day with us in Chodorów,
Albin returned to Kolomyja and vacated his living quarters.
He then went to the ghetto, to our place, and retrieved
some of our clothing. Next, he contacted a friend in
Lwów, who lived with his mother, asking him to put
us up at his place. His friend consented, but to no
more than three persons. Albin then returned to Chodorów
with clothing, money, and identity papers, and took
Lola and I by train to his friend's house in Lwów,
while Jasia remained behind in Chodorów. The trip was
traumatic for Lola and I; just a few days ago another
train had been taking us to the Belzec death camp.
Albin's parents lived in Felicientahl,
a German settlement in Poland. His papers identified
him as Stamdeutche - someone of German stock. This
gave him distinct privileges over other Poles. Eventually,
he got a job as an inventory clerk by contacting the
Liegenschaft, a German organization that administered
estates confiscated from big landowners. While waiting
for his assignment, Albin rented a room in Lwów, where
he lived with Lola and I. At one point, Lola became
very sick and nearly died. Albin brought a reputable
doctor to see her and, with his help, she pulled through.
The doctor realized immediately that the root cause
of her physical breakdown was trauma related. Sometime
later, Albin fetched Jasia and smuggled her into our
place. For a few weeks, Jasia had to hide under the
bed during the day to avoid the landlady, who never
found out that she was there.
Jasia never told me how she got out of
the Chodorów ghetto, but she somehow made her way to
Kolomyja, where she thought Dunek might be able to
find her a hideout. She found him in his laboratory,
but Dunek told her that he had no way of sheltering
her. Jasia must have then wandered to a nearby park
to ponder her fate. When Albin showed up miraculously
a short while later at Dunek's laboratory, Dunek told
him where to look for her. It was Albin who found Jasia
sitting listlessly on a park bench and brought her
to Lwów to live with us in secret.
Early in the spring of 1943, Albin's assignment
arrived. It was with the Liegenschaft in Ernsdorf near
the town of Bobrka. The job came with a furnished apartment,
and this was where he moved in with his "wife," Maria
Kabanowska-Thiel (Lola), his wife's cousin, Stanislawa
Schmiedel (me), and his maid, Aniela Wojciechowska
(Jasia). Shortly after, he arranged a job for me, first
as a secretary and later as a statistician in the Liegenschaft
offices. Being an employee of the Estate Administration,
I received rations. We were no longer hungry. I worked
for the Ernsdorf Liegenschaft, which administered some
twenty estates. The chief administrator, Eugene Schäfer,
was a German, a cruel beast who would have killed me
mercilessly on the spot had he found out I was Jewish.
The house we lived in was situated on
the main street of Bobrka. It was a two-story building
that had belonged to a Jewish doctor before the German
invasion. The General Administration of Confiscated
Private Estates had taken over the property and used
it as living quarters for its employees. The house
was about a kilometre from the Ernsdorf manor, where
the General Administration offices were located. In
this building, Albin managed to obtain for us a furnished
two-room apartment, with a kitchen and alcove, on the
second floor. This was our home for the next year until
the spring of 1944.
Felix Bednarz, an accountant, also lived
on the same floor with his wife and daughter. We suspected
they were Jewish. Once, when I visited Mrs. Bednarz
in her apartment, I noticed an icon of the Virgin Mary
perched on her bed instead of hanging on the wall as
it would have been in a Catholic home. Mrs. Bednarz
seldom left the house and often looked frightened;
their daughter did not attend school. Shortly after
our arrival, the Bednarz family was transferred to
one of the estates managed by the General Administration
in Brynce Zagorne, if I remember correctly. Jan Burg,
the director there, was certainly Jewish. Burg used
to visit Ernsdorf monthly to bring in his reports.
He spoke German using Jewish expressions. The Bednarz
family and Burg remained on the estate after we moved
to Lwów in the spring of 1944. I hope they survived
Herr Hyne, the office manager, and his
pregnant wife occupied the floor below. Hyne was Oberleiter,
Eugene Schäfer's right-hand man. Other employees living
there were Lucynka, Rita, Janek, and Bronek (I have
forgotten their family names). Janek, who was only
nineteen, once expressed the view that a golden monument
should be erected to Hitler for annihilating the Jews.
Rita's reply to him was: "Janek, you are a barbarian."
It was while working at Ernsdorf that
I witnessed the bestial beating of two little peasant
boys by Schäfer. Being very hungry, the boys had stolen
some beet leaves from the fields belonging to the Estate.
They were led into the room by the Oberleiter's henchman,
Ivan Gronyk, who then handed Schäfer a leather strap.
I am still haunted by the screams of those two boys
being savagely beaten. We were told that they were
bed-ridden for a long time, recuperating from their
wounds. During the beatings, Albin pinned me to the
wall, as he was afraid I would throw myself at this
barbarian to wrench the strap from his hand. I know
he would have killed me on the spot. It would have
also been the end of the four of us. Schäfer and Gronyk
used to go to the surrounding forests, hunting for
people who were hiding there, and execute them on the
spot. Once, Schäfer bragged about shooting and killing
a young Jewish couple hiding in the woods near the
village of Pietniczany.
In this atmosphere of constant fear and
terror, we had to pretend to be an average Polish family
and try to fit in with other employees living in the
same house. I was familiar with Polish customs and
did not have problems with Polish pronunciation, as
I had gone to a Polish school. Many Jews had a special
way of pronouncing the rolling Polish "r" that identified
them immediately. As far as I know, nobody suspected
us of being Jewish.
We lived in Bobrka during the time the
ghetto there was being liquidated. The ghetto was burned
to the ground; its entire Jewish population was marched
out of the town and slaughtered. The day after, we
heard in the office that the blood from the mass graves
had run out in streams. One of the administrators of
the nearby village, Wolowe, belonging to the Liegenschaft,
bragged that he had taken part in the shootings. The
next evening, I had a terrifying experience. I was
lying awake in my bed when I heard sounds of wailing
and crying coming from a long procession. The voices
belonged to waves of people drifting through the streets
of Bobrka. The gut-wrenching sounds of mournful sobbing
came closer and closer and then slowly melted into
the night. I ran to the kitchen where Lola, Albin,
and Jasia were, and screamed, "Did you hear that?"
But the only thing they said they could hear was the
howling of dogs.
While living in Bobrka, we were frequently invited
to join birthday parties, holiday dinners, or other
celebrations, like the christening of Hyne's baby that
took place in our building. We also had to reciprocate
by inviting our neighbours to our home. Lola's cooking
skills in preparing holiday meals again proved invaluable.
On occasion, we were invited to other estates belonging
to the General Administration. One such invitation
came at Easter of 1943 from Henryk and Janina Medinski.
Henryk Medinski was in charge of the Chodorkowce estate.
When the time came to evacuate Ernsdorf, it was this
family that invited us to move to their very spacious
apartment in Lwów. In time, we became great friends.
Their beautiful apartment was located at number 5 Sophia
Street, near the Stryjski Park. It had previously belonged
to Berta Stark, a very wealthy Jewish woman who was
the owner of a big department store in Lwów.
Though we never let our hosts know who
we really were, we felt that, had they found out, they
would not have betrayed us. We never heard a derogatory
remark about Jews from them, nor from any of their
relatives whom we met there. Their cousin, Mrs. Dzieduszycka,
whose husband, a university professor, was incarcerated
in Oswiecim, showed us a great deal of kindness and
invited us to her home.
An invitation to the New Year's luncheon
in 1944 is still vivid in my memory. We were still
living in Bobrka. The invitation came from the manager
of the Wolowe estate. Among the many guests was the
mayor of the village. During the lunch, our host turned
to the mayor, and pointing a finger at him, said: "I
know that you are feeding the Jews in the forest."
The mayor calmly turned to him and replied: "Mind your
own business; they [the Jewish partisans who fled the
Bobrka ghetto] are protecting our settlement from Bandera's
hordes." Sadly, both the Jewish partisans and the Polish
population of Wolowe met a bloody end. The Germans
conducted a raid in the forest, murdering all the Jews.
The Bandera bands later massacred the Poles living
in the village of Wolowe.
In Bobrka, we heard of the Warsaw ghetto
uprising. One visiting accountant told us about it,
praising with compassion the heroism of the fighters.
At first, I couldn't believe the news of the uprising,
but then I felt proud despite knowing the grim fate
that must have befallen the fighters, almost all of
whom were killed during the German reprisals that followed.
Towards the end of 1943 and the beginning
of 1944, the armed Ukrainian Bandera bands began to
wreak havoc in western Ukraine, murdering the mostly
Polish population of the villages. Bandera's bands
originally fought for the independence of Ukraine,
first from Russians and later the Germans, but resorted
to ruthless acts of murder and vengeance to achieve
it. The Ernsdorf Manor, where the Administration offices
were located, was turned into a fortress. On a few
occasions, we went to sleep there for protection. Ironically,
armed German guards were protecting us from the roaming
Bandera bands. I remember how one night I found myself
on a straw mattress with about twenty teenage girls
from a Hitler Jugend camp. I had to listen to their
inane conversations about purity of race and comments
about a friend of theirs with darker skin, who was
nevertheless a pure Aryan.
Not long after, we found out that the
Russian army was approaching Bobrka. The Liegenschaft
was to shut down. We were asked to evacuate Ernsdorf,
and all the employees dispersed. It was then that our
friends Henryk and Janina Medinski invited us to join
them in their spacious house in Lwów. There, we met
Henryk's cousin Janek Kintzi, who was attempting to
help Jewish families. (I have written about Janek in
more detail in another part of my memoir.) We remained
at the Medinski's until spring, when Albin got a job
as an inventory clerk at an estate near Jaryczów in
Wolyn, in the pre-war part of Eastern Poland (Wolyn
today lies in western Ukraine). At that time, there
was a lull in the fighting and the front did not move
for a few more months. We moved east to Jaryczów, where
the German administrator and his dutch assistant, Marines
Cherardes Van Dyke, engaged Lola as a chef. Jasia took
the job of sous-chef. I remember how delighted they
were with Lola's cooking. The German-Russian stalemate
at the front meant extending our stay there until July
of 1944, when the Russian offensive began to advance
again towards Lwów.
By the beginning of 1944, the Russian
front was nearing Lwów. While living at the Medinski's,
we experienced frequent air raids and had to run to
the shelter. We were scared of getting hit by bombs,
but at the same time we felt euphoric, knowing that
now the arrogant Nazi beasts also feared for their
lives. Living next door to us was a young Ukrainian
woman with two small babies. Her husband was away somewhere
- possibly collaborating with the Germans or active
in Bandera bands. At the sound of the sirens, I used
to run to her place to help her get down to the shelter
with her children, as she could not manage the babies
by herself. I wonder what her reaction would have been
had she realized that it was a Jewish woman helping
Meanwhile, the Russian army took Kolomyja
and then withdrew shortly thereafter under pressure
from the German counteroffensive. Our constant thoughts
were with our sister Ziuta and her family, who were
still hiding in Kolomyja. We were hoping that they
would succeed in escaping with the retreating Soviet
army. This was exactly what happened. Leaving their
hiding place, they hitched a ride to Czerniowce, which
at the time was well behind the fighting front. The
Soviet army returned after a few weeks and recaptured
Kolomyja, but it took months for the Russians to regroup
and start pushing west towards Lwów.
At about this time, the Germans issued an order that
everyone had to obtain an ID card called a Kennkarte,
a document proving there were no Jewish ancestors in
the family. To obtain a Kennkarte, one had to show
copies of birth certificates going back three generations.
Kolomyja, from where we had to get duplicates of the
birth certificates, had already come under Soviet control,
and the SS had executed Father Peciak: obtaining the
necessary papers seemed impossible. But Albin solved
even this problem. He went to the Bishop's palace in
Lwów, where the archives of all parishes of this juridiction
were kept. He explained the obvious difficulties of
obtaining documents from Kolomyja and requested copies
of the birth certificates from the archives. He succeeded
in getting them for all of us. We were also fortunate
that the documents showed no traces of Jewish ancestry.
All we had to do then was provide photographs and proof
At the time, we were living with the Medinski
family in Lwów, but we were registered in the town
of Bobrka, so this was where our Kennkarte had to be
issued. Lola was petrified to travel to Bobrka and
refused to accompany us. So, early one morning, Albin
and I left for Bobrka some 65 kilometres away. In our
pockets we carried the required papers for all of us.
At this point, my mind goes blank. I don't recall the
trip. In my mind, though, I see Albin and myself in
Bobrka in front of an official who is taking my finger
prints for the Kennkarte, and I can hear Albin explaining
how his wife is sick and cannot be present in person,
and that the maid had to stay behind to look after
her. Albin was able to get a Kennkarte for Lola and
Jasia, as well as a bottle of ink and instructions
on where to place their fingerprints and signatures.
Returning to Lwów, we got a ride in a German lorry.
In the back of the lorry were a couple of armed policemen
and the covered bodies of two German soldiers killed
by the Banderas. We arrived in Lwów at two in the afternoon.
I had a severe migraine and felt I would pass out any
minute. The tension and anxiety of the last few hours
must have come to the surface.
In the interim, and until the Russian
offensive reached us in Lwów, the Kennkarte proved
critical to our survival. Except for my photograph,
which I kept, I left the life-saving Kennkarte behind
when we crossed the Romanian border in April of 1945.
When the Russian offensive started to push towards
Lwów, the German administrator gave us a wagon, two
good horses, and fodder for our getaway and advised
us to return them in Krakow to the German authorities.
But instead of leaving for Krakow, we went back to
the Medinski's place. Albin found a stable nearby and
took the horses to the Stryjski Park to graze as bombs
fell on the town. The siege of Lwów was short with
relatively little damage to the town. From the windows
of our apartment we could see the first Soviet soldiers
entering Lwów. We had survived!
A little later, we went to a nearby church.
Inside, it felt unusually sombre and peaceful. We sat
there and reflected on what we had come through, and
marvelled at our new reality. We hoped that our ordeal
After the Soviet capture of Lwów in August
of 1944, we had to decide what to do next. We had almost
run out of grain for the horses, and we knew that the
new authorities would soon confiscate our precious
animals. Albin decided we should leave immediately
for Zaleszczyki. We loaded our bundles onto the wagon
and were on our way the next morning. We had 200 rubles
that we had found in Bobrka, hidden behind a picture
frame. They probably belonged to the Jewish doctor
whose apartment we occupied briefly. We found the rubles
in an envelope, glued to the back of the frame, after
it accidentally crashed to the floor. The money proved
very useful for purchasing feed for the horses during
the four days that it took us to cover the 250 kilometres
We travelled on the very roads where,
only a few days earlier, battles had been fought. The
ground was pockmarked with large bomb craters. The
crops were gone. Deep tracks left by tanks crisscrossed
the fields where bread-giving grain had grown. The
leafless trees stood out like phantoms. The stench
of decaying bodies was still in the air. We noticed
dead horses lying in the fields. During the first two
days of our trip, almost every village we passed was
in ruins, and we had difficulty finding shelter for
the night. Further on, we encountered entire villages
that had escaped the heavy fighting and devastation.
Our money soon ran out and we had no more
fodder for the starving horses. One was close to collapse.
We had to unhitch him from the wagon and lead him slowly
down the road to Zaleszczyki.
Our home itself had not been demolished
during the fighting, but all the wooden galleries in
the back of the house had vanished, burned for fuel.
We were happy to find our old tenant and friend, Mrs.
Zajaczkowska, still living there. She welcomed us with
hugs and tears. We stayed with her for a few days.
By some fortunate coincidence, two rooms and a kitchen
on the lower floor became vacant. We promptly moved
in with our bundles. This arrangement lasted a few
months. Albin, meanwhile, didn't wait for the Russians
to confiscate the wagon and horses. He traded them
for two piglets and two sacks of grain. When news of
our arrival spread, something unusual, for those days,
happened. Our Zaleszczyki neighbours came by to welcome
us. People brought furniture, clothes, and other necessities.
Before leaving for the ghetto, Ecia had left many of
her belongings, such as feather pillows and pots and
pans, with Pawlinka. Knowing that Ecia would never
return, Pawlinka gave them to us. Dziunka Nedilenko,
Lola's best friend, dropped off some cutlery, dishes,
glasses, and clothes. Karola gave us some cornmeal
and eggs tied in her kerchief. Matykowa, who used to
do our laundry, brought a bundle of food. So did Mrs.
Terlecka, to whom my mother gave homemade preserves.
Mrs. Zajaczkowska, our old tenant who had been living
there since before the war, gave us beds and other
Lola's friend Dziunka greeted us with
these words: "We knew you were alive; we were expecting
you." According to her, the death train headed for
Belzec reloaded near the Lwów concentration camp on
Janowski Street. There my parents met Mendel Berkovicz,
brother of our cook Ecia, who was in the Jewish work
brigade. They told him that their children were alive
and were expected to get help to survive. Later Berkovicz
managed to escape from the Janowski work camp and made
his way back to Zaleszczyki, where he went into hiding
until the Soviets captured the town. He enlisted immediately
with the Soviet militia to fight the Bandera groups
and was killed in action. Unfortunately, I was never
able to independently confirm his meeting with my parents.
By the time I got back to Zaleszczyki, all I found
was his grave marked with a red Soviet star, indicating
he had died a hero.
It was then that we found out that Ziuta,
Dunek, and Anusia had survived the war and were staying
in Czerniowce, some forty kilometres from Zaleszczyki.
During the Nazi occupation, Dunek made
himself indispensable by setting up a laboratory to
test for infectious diseases. This made it possible
for him to work outside the ghetto together with his
wife, Ziuta, whom he trained as a laboratory technician.
Anusia was always with them. I remember a story he
once told about a Gestapo officer visiting his lab
because he had heard only Dunek could diagnose his
illness. Dunek was not terribly unhappy when the results
indicated that the officer was in the advanced stages
of syphilis. He even took some pleasure in letting
the Gestapo officer observe the pathogen colony under
At one point, when there were hardly any Jews left
in the Kolomyja ghetto, SS men arrived to arrest Dunek,
Ziuta, and Anusia. Dunek showed an amazing presence
of mind when he calmly told them that an epidemic was
expected and his skills would be needed to control
it. It saved their lives. The Nazis hesitated and left
him alone for the time being. A few days later, the
Germans issued an order for all the remaining Jews
in the town to gather in the work square. They warned
that whoever failed to obey the order would be shot.
Dunek refused to obey. An SS man and a Ukrainian guard
arrived to take him and the family to be shot. The
Ukrainian guard happened to be Dunek's former driver;
his name was Natyszyn. As Dunek and his family were
being led down the street toward their place of execution,
their small procession passed in front of a well-known
house located just outside the ghetto, where a few
Jewish physicians still lived. Kolomyja had a population
of 60,000 and the physicians had been allowed to remain
there while their services were still needed. While
Natyszyn diverted the attention of the SS man, Dunek,
grabbing at the chance, whisked his family into the
That same evening, the family relocated
to the home of one of Dunek's former patients, a prostitute
named Ana. Ana lived alone in a one-room flat with
a kitchen. Hearing about her doctor's fate, she had
decided to snatch him from the Nazis' fangs and had
courageously offered her tiny apartment as a refuge
for the family. She had two beds. Ziuta and Dunek slept
on one, while Anusia slept with Ana on the other. Ana
had syphilis and Dunek, of course, knew that. To be
on the safe side, Anusia always went to bed wearing
long underwear. Dunek's ingenuity led him to start
digging a hole big enough to hold three people under
the stove in Ana's kitchen. He kept digging day and
night, while Ana, under cover of night, carried the
soil out to the garden. Throughout the operation, they
kept the only window in the room covered with a black
transparent net, through which one of them always kept
watch in case someone should approach the house. Once,
when this happened, they had to quickly move the stove
out of the way in order to hide in the hole. The family
remained in hiding in Ana's tiny apartment for almost
a year. After the German retreat, the family searched
for Ana, wishing to thank her for saving their lives,
but she had vanished without a trace. Dunek did get
to see Natyszyn once more, after the Soviets recaptured
the town in 1944. Natyszyn was running down the street
half-naked. He had lost his mind.
When the Soviet army recaptured Kolomyja,
Dunek and his family left their hiding place. Not much
later, the Germans made a counter-offensive and got
close to Kolomyja. The family hitched a ride on a Soviet
truck and escaped to Czerniowce. There, in the summer
of 1944, they found out that Lola, Jasia, Albin, and
I had survived and were living not far away, in Zaleszczyki.
As there was no regular means of transport between
Czerniowce and Zaleszczyki, Dunek, Ziuta, and Anusia
covered the 40 kilometres on foot. Dunek was still
recovering from typhoid and could barely walk. In the
end, they made it to Zaleszczyki and fell into our
arms, utterly exhausted and in tears.
Besides ourselves, there was a small group of Jews
already living in our town. They had survived the roundups
by working for a German employer who had passed off
his Jewish employees as "experts" in the experimental
production of synthetic rubber. With German industry
in dire need of rubber throughout the war, this daring
manager had been able to protect his workers not only
from the Nazis, but also from the equally bloodthirsty
Bandera bands. Among this group of survivors were my
father's cousin, Bronia, and her sister's little son
Emil. At the time, my father's sister, Mania, and her
two sons also lived in Zaleszczyki. Mania was married
to Herman Grunberg, a physician. One of his patients
had hidden the family in a small shelter dug beneath
a cow stall. They had spent a year in there, venturing
out only at night. The family was in extremely poor
health by the time the Soviet army recaptured the city.
My uncle went back to work in a hospital, but it wasn't
long before he died of typhoid, leaving behind his
widow and two teenage sons. All this happened before
we arrived back home.
In Zaleszczyki, we tried to establish
some normality in our lives. Pawlinka immediately came
to look after us, helping us with cleaning and whatever
else we needed to get done. Lola and Aunt Mania baked
chrusty, a special kind of crispy pastry, which Pawlinka
sold at the market. We shared the profits with her.
All this lasted from August of 1944 until April of
1945. Then began the resettlement of Poles from Eastern
Poland, which now was part of the Ukraine, to Western
Poland. Pawlinka and her husband signed up for relocation.
Meanwhile, Dunek, whose ancestors were Romanian, obtained
the necessary papers for all of us to go to Romania.
We loaded our meagre possessions onto a ferryboat and
crossed the Dniestr. While helping us with some of
our bundles, Pawlinka cried the whole time. She said
to me: "Milinka, send me a dress from America." Sadly,
after our separation I lost touch with her. Dear Pawlinka:
You will live in my heart as long as I live; I shall
never forget your love and devotion.
My parents had perished, though miraculously
the rest of my family had survived: the three sisters,
Jasia, Dunek, Anusia, Mania (my aunt) and her two sons,
Dolo and Emil, and Cousin Bronia with her nephew Milo.
Shortly after the war in 1945, I remember
seeing a column of German prisoners of war: young men,
looking emaciated and in miserable condition. They
were carrying heavy logs for some kind of building
project. Soviet soldiers with machine guns surrounded
the column of prisoners and kept shouting orders at
them to keep moving. I looked at the young, sad faces
of these German prisoners and felt only pity. I knew
then that the horrors of the war had not scarred me,
and that I had been spared the destructive urges that
lead to hatred and vengeance.
PEOPLE IN MY MEMORY
THE ZAJACZKOWSKI FAMILY
Mrs. Zajaczkowska, her son Zdzislaw (Zdzisiek),
and her daughter Wanda were our tenants in Zaleszczyki.
Zdzisiek held an important job with the taxation office.
Wanda was an unemployed teacher, her only income being
a small allowance of fifty Zlotys a month from her
uncle. The mother had a modest widow's pension. Zdzisiek
took care of all other expenses.
Zdzisiek liked Lola very much; they went
on secret dates. My parents were not happy with this
infatuation, but didn't openly voice their disapproval.
Wanda had a big influence on us. She had a terrific
sense of humour and even flirted with our neighbour,
Dr. Serafin Blutreich, who later became a hero of the
Monte Casino battle.
It was Wanda who enlightened me about
sex. She used to shape my brows by plucking out unruly
hairs. Together, we planned how to spend her allowance.
She once bought a red polka-dot coat made of plastic,
a novelty in those days. She eagerly waited to show
off her outfit, but to her dismay the rain seemed to
avoid our town that month. Even though most of her
other outfits were tailored from suits once worn by
her elegant, handsome brother, she always managed to
look chic. I can still hear her voice yelling from
downstairs: "Lolka, what's Manka cooking?" When the
reply was to her liking, she would run upstairs to
partake of the food prepared by our cook.
In the fall of 1940, the NKVD (the Soviet
Secret Police) arrested Zdzisiek. We all cried bitterly
when they took him away. Wanda and her mother, fearing
deportation to Siberia, moved in temporarily with relatives
in another city. After a few months, Zdzisiek was released.
Since his mother was away, he came to us. He was a
shell of a man: thin, aged, and stooped over. He was
starving, so our cook made him scrambled eggs with
lots of bread and butter. He ate voraciously. When
I asked him about his treatment in prison, he replied:
"Don't ask. I signed a paper to keep quiet."
We lost touch with them during the German
occupation that followed, but after returning to Zaleszczyki
in 1944, we found Mrs. Zajaczkowska living alone. She
received us warmly. We found out later from Wanda that
Zdzisiek died in 1944 during the Warsaw uprising. After
the war, Wanda married a Holocaust survivor, a Mr.
Polanski, father of the well-known film director, Roman
Polanski. Roman supported her financially after the
death of his father. While visiting Krakow, Lola and
I phoned her but she refused to see us. We were told
that she was in ill health and shunned visitors because
of what the ravages of time had done to her appearance.
She died in Krakow.
Kuba was my mother's cousin. Before the
outbreak of the war in 1939, as a young lawyer he had
opened a law office in Zaleszczyki. He was good-looking,
very bright, and on the road to success. He visited
often. It seemed that Lola was the magnet that attracted
him to our house. After the Russians invaded Eastern
Poland, there were a few weeks of relative calm. We
saw Zdzisiek and Kuba almost daily. The evening discussions
revolved around our hopes for a short occupation. We
were sure that France and England would defeat Hitler's
Germany, push back the Russians, and that Poland would
be free once again. Mania was still with us then and
usually served us a light evening meal. At the time,
the atmosphere at our house was one of warm friendship,
optimism, and confidence in the future. It did not
last. The Russian reign of terror began soon after.
One evening, the militia took Zdzisiek away - he was
the first victim from our circle. Fear entered our
As everyone had to be employed, Kuba began
to look into the possibility of working in his profession.
When he entered the local Soviet administrative office,
he was greeted with: "Kakij ty czort?" (Who the devil
are you?) Kuba came to our house shaken and told my
parents he couldn't live under such crude and oppressive
conditions. He began planning his escape over the river
Dniestr to Romania. He found a guide willing to take
him across to the other side for a fee, but they had
to wait until the river froze over. The guide's name
was Shapiro, and he lived on a farm near the river
in the village of Pieczarna. Together, they intended
to crawl over the ice, covered in a white shroud for
camouflage. It was agreed that once they made it safely
to the other side, Kuba would hand Shapiro a token,
an object known only to himself and his sister - a
cigarette box. With the token, Shapiro would return
to Kuba's sister and collect his fee. We breathed a
sigh of relief when Shapiro arrived with the cigarette
box. After crossing the river, Shapiro had given Kuba
directions to a Romanian village. But it so happened
that on that day in January, a severe snowstorm blew
through the region and Kuba lost his way. He wandered
back straight into the arms of the Soviet border guards.
He was arrested and accused of being a spy, a charge
that normally carried the death sentence. After many
months in prison in Stanislawow, Kuba was sentenced
to hard labour in Komi, a gulag near Archangielsk,
where he perished. A fellow exile, who had survived
the hard labour and the harsh conditions there, later
told Lola that Kuba had often talked about her in the
gulag. Shortly after the incident with Kuba, the whole
Shapiro family was arrested, never to be heard from
We met Janek in 1944 at the home of the
Medinski family, our hosts. He was Henryk Medinski's
first cousin. Young, good-looking, and in his thirties,
he was the only son of a wealthy owner of an estate
in Eastern Poland. He was a chemical engineer by profession
and had recently married a very attractive woman. Henryk
was very fond of his cousin. He told us privately that
this "crazy" Janek was obsessed with saving the lives
of Jews, and that he was selling a family heirloom
to finance a rescue operation. It seems he was organizing
the transfer of a number of Jews from Lwów to Warsaw
where, at the time, hiding the Jews was better organized
than in Lwów.
In the spring of 1944, a few weeks before
the Russians recaptured Lwów, Janek took his own life
by swallowing poison. His widow told the Medinskis
that somebody had been blackmailing him. Fearing imprisonment
and torture by the Nazis, he had decided to take his
own life. We had met Janek and had lived under the
same roof with members of his closest family. We were
all shattered by his death. We knew we had to attend
his funeral, but it was extremely risky for us to appear
in a large crowd. We seriously feared that informers
would be present at the service, looking for Jews.
Still, Albin, Lola, and I went to the funeral wearing
hats, which Mrs. Medinski had lent us for the occasion.
Janek was buried at the Lyczakowski Cemetery in Lwów,
in the family crypt marked, "Medinski-Kintzi."
Lusia was my closest friend during our
teenage years. A year older, she was the daughter
of a wealthy pediatrician who lived in a large, nicely
furnished house. Lusia's room was decorated with lovely
cushions, crochet curtains, and doilies, all made by
her mother, who loved handicrafts. Our friendship started
in high school. At that time, I was living in the shadow
of a charming, talented, and very ambitious older sister,
Lola. Not having any of my sister's virtues, I felt
inferior to her. It was Lusia's friendship that gave
me confidence in myself. She found many positive traits
in my character and enjoyed being with me. We used
to walk and talk for hours in each other's company.
When we were not together, we spoke on the phone. In
those days, to get a connection we needed to ask the
operator for the number. Our phone number was 18, while
Lusia's was 81. The operator had grown so used to connecting
the two numbers that she connected them automatically,
without ever asking. From time to time, when my father
wished to call somebody, he would get Lusia on the
Lusia was an optimist. Her motto was:
"Nie szukaj dziur" (Don't look for flaws). When I moved
to Kolomyja in 1940, we kept up an almost daily correspondence.
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union, her father was
drafted into the Soviet army. Our frequent exchange
of letters continued. She was positive that we would
survive. She made me memorize her aunt's address in
the Bronx, in the USA, in case we lost touch. While
we were in the ghetto in Kolomyja, Lusia, together
with her mother and sister, lived in the Tluste ghetto.
At some point, Julia, Lusia's sister,
was able to leave the ghetto. It came about with the
help of a Ukrainian militia man who guarded the gates.
Once, when Julia was walking down the street, he had
whispered to her that he could save her if she followed
him. He took her by train to a village near Charkow,
in the Soviet part of the Ukraine. There, he left her
with his mother. Abused by the guard, Julia ran away;
she survived the war and I met her in Zaleszczyki in
1944. Later, she immigrated to Israel. Meanwhile, in
1942, Lusia met a much older man who was preparing
a hiding place outside the ghetto. He offered Lusia
and her mother a place there and they moved in. It
was relatively comfortable and spacious. After a few
days, they decided to fetch a few more of their belongings
from the ghetto. On the way there, they were caught
and taken to the cemetery, where they were killed.
The others, who had stayed in the hideout, including
a man who was Lusia's friend, survived the war. I met
the man in 1944. He told me how Lusia perished. I dream
of Lusia frequently. In my dreams, I ask her why she
is angry with me, and why she doesn't want to see me
Father Peciak was the parish priest of
the church of Sobieski Street in Kolomyja. It was his
invaluable assistance to Albin that saved our lives.
Unfortunately, I have no further information that would
shed light on the heroic work of this saintly man,
who died a martyr's death at the hands of the Gestapo.
I know that Albin sought his help in procuring
copies of birth and baptismal certificates for many
Jews. Jasia, Lola, and I were among the lucky ones
he had helped, Albin having access to the City Hall
registers. Father Peciak asked him to obtain a list
of names of persons born in Kolomyja of the approximate
age of those he intended to save. Albin passed the
list of names to Father Peciak, who then issued copies
of the birth certificates. I know Albin received many
such life-saving documents from Father Peciak. Among
those who obtained such papers were our friends, Iser
and Toni Reisman. Sadly, the Reismans were later caught
by the SS and murdered. The irony is, that it may have
been Father Peciak's own signature on the Reismans'
documents that led to his arrest and execution. Father
Peciak truly merits the epitaph: "Perished for the
cause, faithful to God's commands."
During the Soviet occupation, Mrs. Abosh,
a widow with three grown children, lived in Kolomyja
next door to my sister's apartment. We were friends
of her son Janusz, and daughters Gizela and Stefa.
Shortly before the war, Stefa got a teaching job at
a business school in Zaleszczyki. For a while, she
lived in our house and shared a room with Lola. When
the German-Soviet war broke out in June of 1941, Janusz
was drafted into the Soviet army. He was never heard
from after that. Mrs. Abosh used to sit by the window
overlooking the street, waiting for her beloved son's
return. Shortly after the Germans took Kolomyja, Stefa
was arrested and was also never heard from again. She
was probably executed right away. Believing her daughter
was still alive and working somewhere in a labour camp,
Mrs. Abosh continued to hope for her release.
In the end, only Gizela and her mother
were left. They moved to the Kolomyja ghetto. Gizela
managed to get a job outside the ghetto. In this way,
she could bring much-needed food to her mother. One
day, in the summer of 1942, an SS man arrested Gizela
at her place of work and led her away. She did not
return to her mother that day. Lola went looking for
Mrs. Abosh and found her bewildered and scared, huddled
in a corner, waiting for Gizela. Lola brought Mrs.
Abosh, with her few belongings and a bottle of cooking
oil, to our place. She became the sixth person to share
our room and slept on a narrow cot with Lola. During
the night, the old woman would hold on to my sister
for protection. We shared our meagre food with her
and she shared her bottle of oil. Mrs. Abosh was with
us in the cattle car that carried us to Belzec. Even
there, she kept holding on to Lola, repeating: "Now,
I know what happened to my children."
On the first floor in our house was my
father's office, where his right-hand man, Gedalia
Barad, ruled. He was an accountant with a diploma from
a business college in Vienna. There was neither a typewriter
nor an adding machine in Barad's office. He audited
all the business transactions and wrote the contracts
in his calligraphic handwriting. As for calculations,
he could add the long columns of figures with the speed
of an adding machine. I remember him making entries
in a book called an "Amerykanka," a huge ledger covering
the surface of a long table. He worked standing up.
Shortly after the invasion by the Red
Army, our mill was nationalized. Initially, my father
and Barad were chosen by the workers to be their manager
and accountant respectively. This situation, however,
was short-lived. My father was soon dismissed since
Soviet rules prevented previous owners from managing
their own businesses. Barad continued to look after
the financial affairs of the mill. He even remained
in this capacity for a short while under the German
occupation. Barad was still there in the fall of 1941,
when we were in Kolomyja and hungry. Through a local
priest who served as an intermediary, he arranged for
the delivery of flour to us. I still recall how deeply
we were moved by this gesture of goodwill.
Before the war, all business transactions
were conducted in cash only. The money was kept in
a large safe in the office. Barad kept the key to this
safe with him at all times. Farmers who delivered grain
to the mill received a note from the miller stating
the weight and quality of the grain. They then had
to travel some twelve kilometres to collect their payment.
To establish the current price of grain, Barad would
call Lwów to obtain the daily rate. The farmers trusted
my father; they knew that they could receive fair compensation
for their harvest.
Barad gave my mother a monthly allowance
for running the household, and also collected payments
from merchants who purchased our flour. When the war
broke out, many people owed money to my father. In
the winter of 1940, when our funds were running short,
my father made a trip to collect some of these debts.
He returned with a substantial amount of money and
the positive feeling that there were still many good
and honest people among his old customers.
Barad had a wife and five sons. Years
after the war, I met one of his sons, Ulo, in New York.
He was the sole survivor of the Barad family. He told
me the story of how he managed to survive the Holocaust.
His mother was killed in Zaleszczyki in October of
1941. The rest of the family moved to Korolówka. There,
the Gestapo caught up with them and shot and killed
his father and four brothers. One by one, they fell,
and their bodies covered Ulo, who was lying on the
bed under the covers, sick with typhoid fever. Ulo
survived the typhoid and the rest of the war by hiding
with 38 other untrained, ill-equipped people in the
deep, hostile caves near the village of Korolówka,
called Popowa Yama (Priest's grotto).
Today, Ulo is the proud owner of the Edison
Hotel in New York. My husband and I visited him there
and he treated us graciously. During our daily talks
at breakfast, we had a chance to talk about his and
our war experiences.
Ignacy Garlicki was one of our tenants
in Zaleszczyki. His apartment was located on the parterre,
or the ground floor of our building. He worked for
the finance department at City Hall. He was married
but his wife was in and out of the Kulparków mental
hospital in Lwów. They were childless. His housekeeper,
Nascia, was a kind and faithful soul and looked after
him. Mr. Garlicki was a lonely man.
Mr. Garlicki was fond of hunting and the
walls of his room were covered with trophies and hunting
rifles. He loved me as if I had been his own child.
Although I was quite young, I have a fair recollection
of his kind and tender feelings for me. Whenever he
felt particularly lonely, he would call out to me from
the foot of the steps: "Mila tu!" (Mila, come to me!)
I would then drop whatever I was doing and run downstairs
into his open arms. He would give me crayons and paper,
and I would draw quietly next to him, while he laid
out his game of solitaire. I remember he once asked
me if I was hungry, and I in turn asked him what "hunger"
meant. He even taught me how to blow my nose. The top
drawer of his dresser was always full of pretzels and
candies for me. On rare occasions when his wife was
home, she made beautiful ornaments for the Christmas
tree. They decorated the tree to please Lola and I.
His wife also made our Purim costumes.
Mr. Garlicki died of pneumonia when I
was five years old. Pawlinka took me to the chapel
where his body was being prepared for burial. It was
the first time in my young life that I saw a lifeless
body. I recall a man shaving him. It was a traumatic
experience for a child my age. During the small funeral
procession that followed, I held Pawlinka's hand. Behind
us walked my mother and Ziuta. At the cemetery, I was
given a handful of earth to throw into the grave. To
this day, I can hear the thud of soil falling on his
Mr. Garlicki died in the spring. That
same year, on the first of November, I went with my
mother and sister to have a look at the cemetery from
across the road. Traditionally, on the occasion of
Wszystkich Swietych (All Saints' Day), hundreds of
candles light up the whole cemetery - an unforgettable
sight. But I noticed that Mr. Garlicki's grave, which
was close to the road, was dark. There were no candles
burning for him. This saddened me greatly. The next
day, on Zaduszki (All Souls' Day), my mother allowed
me to visit the cemetery with Pawlinka to sweep Mr.
Garlicki's grave, light a candle, and place some flowers
there in his memory. The last time I remembered him
in this way was on All Saints' Day in 1938, when I
was almost fifteen. In the intervening years, I made
sure to visit Mr. Garlicki's grave every November first.
Each time I swept it, decorated it with flowers, and
lit a few candles. After the war, his grave disappeared.
The road passing by the cemetery was widened, and the
graves near the fence were levelled.
We used to keep a photo of Mr. Garlicki
in our family album. Maybe that is why my memories
of his face, adorned with a big gray moustache, are
still so vivid. When the war began, I recall being
scared and asking the spirit of Mr. Garlicki to shield
me from danger, telling him: "You have no one else
to protect but me." He once gave Lola and I a cherished
gift: a swing seat that we hung from time to time from
the door post between two rooms. He used to recite
a poem for us. It went like this:
Hust hust do góry, wyżej, niżej chmury
Swing up and high
Tak przyjemnie i tak milo
Above the clouds
Jakby się ptaszyn± bylo
How nice to have wings
Jakby się skrzydełka miało
Like a little bird
I do nieba hen leciało.
How sweet to be heaven-bound.
In the summer of 1943, our friend Henryk
Medinski brought us a gift of a purebred dachshund
puppy. We called her Miki. The little dog became our
mascot and our good luck charm. We believed that no
one would suspect us of being Jewish, because Jews
did not keep pets during those terrible times. Our
Miki was our protector. Not only did she bark when
strangers approached, but she sank her teeth into many
a trousered leg of suspected enemies.
We took Miki everywhere. She travelled
with us from Bobrka to Lwów, then to Jaryczów and back
to Lwów. I don't ever recall walking her, we didn't
even own a leash. I used to spend a lot of time grooming
her and ridding her of fleas she had picked up from
the street. In return, Miki gave me unlimited and unconditional
On our way back to Zaleszczyki in 1944,
she sat on top of the wagon, never straying even for
a moment. She loved our town, and ran freely through
its streets even though she was wary of strangers and
would bark fiercely at them. She did however take a
liking to Pawlinka and followed her around. When my
sister Ziuta came to meet us for the first time after
the German retreat, Miki did not leave her side for
a minute, sensing somehow that Ziuta was family.
We smuggled Miki into Romania in 1945.
It was forbidden to bring dogs across the border, so
we had to cover her with clothing, leaving only her
nose exposed. We told her to be quiet and she obeyed.
When we let her free on the Romanian side, Miki jumped
up and down, joyfully licking our faces as if she understood
that we were safe at last! We travelled in freight
cars for at least a month before reaching a town in
Transylvania called Sygiet where, after a while, Lola
met her future husband. Both Lola and Miki had finally
found a permanent home.
When Lola's daughter, Felicia was born, Miki took it
upon herself to watch over the baby. Her favourite
spot was right under the crib and whenever the baby
woke up Miki would run to fetch Lola.
My sister Lola was extremely lonely in this strange
country. It took her a while to learn Hungarian; she
spoke only Polish to Miki so the people of the town
learned to call: "Miki! Chodz' tu!" (come here!) or
"Lengyel Kujya" (Polish dog).
One day in 1948, a cruel hand threw a
rock at Miki's pregnant belly, killing both Miki and
her unborn pups. Lola's letter describing Miki's death
was covered with tears.
AFTER THE WAR LIFE GOES ON
Albin was the first to leave us. He fell
in love with a wealthy Romanian physician with whom
he subsequently emigrated to Argentina. His lady friend
did not know about us nor did she know about his heroic
deeds during the war. As a result our contacts with
him after the war were almost non- existent.
In 1947 we left Romania, leaving behind Lola, her husband,
infant daughter Felicia, and Miki.
Jasia enlisted to go to Palestine.
She landed first in Cyprus and from there managed to
make her way to the newly created state of Israel.
During the war that ensued, she was seriously
injured in an explosion. After a lengthy convalescence,
she recovered her vitality and joie de vivre and married
She now lives in Haifa, the proud matriarch
of a successful family consisting of her daughter Esther,
husband Jerry and their daughters Yael and Ayelet and
her son, Avinoam, a world renowned orthopedic surgeon,
his wife Shula and their children Tomar and Mayan.
Lola applied for a job with the American
Joint Committee. During the interview, when asked what
she could do, she answered in German: 'Kochen und Backen'
(cook and bake). She must have made a great impression
on the man who interviewed her. His name was Izso Viesel,
a Holocaust survivor. He arranged to have hired her
as a supervisor in a convalescent home for survivors
returning from the concentration camps. Many of them
were sick and in dire need of help.
Lola's sweet personality and warm caring
heart gained her the affection of her patients and
the love of Izso Viesel, her future husband.
Dunek,Ziuta, Anusia and I received our
Polish Passports from the Polish Consulate in Bucharest
enabling us to leave Romania. By strange coincidence
the Consul, Josef Krzyzanowski, happened to be the
former starosta of Zaleszczyki district. Having known
my father, he greeted me warmly and personally vouched
for my identity.
Lola stayed behind. She had just given birth to a daughter
Felicia and did not dare leave the comfort of her home
to venture out into the unknown with an infant. It
took fifteen years for the Viesel Family to obtain
their exit visas to join us in Canada. They arrived
in 1962 and settled in Toronto. By then, their second
daughter Eva was five years old.
My sister and I were finally reunited!
Lola passed away on her 82nd birthday,
leaving behind her devoted and adoring daughters, their
husbands Jay Jervis and Zion Meyer, grand children
Daniel, Patrick, Lisa, Karen Ayelet and a great-grand-son
My sister Ziuta and her family, Dunek
and Anusia, settled in Toronto, where Dunek had established
his successful and busy medical practice.
Few years later Ziuta was shocked to learn
of her granddaughter's hearing loss. She started setting
aside money for Frances, fearing she would not be able
to earn a living.
The biggest blow for Ziuta, however, was
Anusia's illness and premature death at the age of
45. I will never forget the sight of Dunek and Ziuta
seated on a sofa after Anusia's funeral. Having just
lost their only child, they looked forlorn, lonely,
and bewildered as they held on to each other. Both
Dunek and Ziuta were devoted grandparents to Frances
and Michael, giving them their unconditional love.
Ziuta died at the age of 82.
Following the end of the war we led a
nomadic existence as we looked for a place to settle,
a place far removed from the scene of horror and suffering.
We wanted to be surrounded by people who had not witnessed
and who had not become accustomed to the brutality
that prevailed in Europe during the war years.
Our wanderings took us to Romania, Czechoslovakia,
Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. We lived in Paraguay
for several months during which time the country experienced
several revolutions and five presidents. We were miserable
there. My brother-in-law, a prominent physician in
Poland, was not allowed to practice medicine and had
no hope of receiving permission to do so in the future.
I was the only one working and my meager earnings
barely covered our basic needs.
Then a miracle happened. My brother-in-law
received a letter from an uncle in Montreal, who promised
to send us the required papers and money to enable
us to settle in Canada. The next few months were filled
with hope and despair - hope because we were to be
going to Canada and despair because the uncle suddenly
died. And although we already had necessary documents
we had no money for the passage.
That being the case, we moved to Uruguay
from where my brother-in-law sent letters to all of
his and our relatives in the United States pleading
to borrow money for the trip to Montreal. It took us
three months to gather sufficient funds for the trip.
We finally arrived in Canada on July 1,
l949 - the birthday of the country and for us - the
beginning of a new life. Although I spoke neither
English nor French and often felt very lonely, I loved
living in this normal peaceful society from the first
day of my arrival, from the moment of the first friendly
greeting of the customs officer at the border near
Lacolle who warmly welcomed us to Canada.
For the next two years I worked in a clothing
factory during the day and attended school at night.
It was rough going but I was happy to be self-supporting.
In l952 I met my husband and was no longer
My first office position was with a construction
company. My boss George Fenton, helpfully corrected
my English as I struggled to learn the language. I
was invited to his home and treated like a member of
the family. After the experiences of the war, the friendship
of the Fenton family was like a balm soothing the wounds
and scars of the past. Unfortunately the company failed
and the family moved to Ottawa.
My next position was that of an assistant-controller
for a mining company. There too, I met people who encouraged
me to pursue my studies at Sir George Williams College.
I learned a great deal from my wonderful supervisor,
the late Noreen Rich. She was a brilliant accountant
who shared her knowledge, guided me in my work and
supported my studies. Thanks to her, not only did I
acquire solid office management skills but I also gained
confidence in myself.
This company also experienced financial problems and
had to fold, but a letter of recommendation written
by the president of the company helped me to land a
job at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
I joined the Museum in August l960. It
is difficult to put into words the pride and joy I
felt when I was selected from among several applicants
for this position. I felt tremendous gratitude to Canada,
where such a thing can happen- where an institution
like the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts can choose me
solely on the basis of merit and letters of recommendation
disregarding my origins and religion. I felt privileged
to be working for this institution and tried, to the
best of my ability, to promote the good image of the
Having worked for thirty four years at a fascinating
job for an institution that gave me unlimited opportunities
to pursue my interest in Art - I retired in 1994.
Canada is like a mother who adopted me,
gave me affection, hope and an equal opportunity to
express myself and to succeed. The only way I can repay
this Great Country is by devoting my life to overcoming
ignorance and prejudice - the biggest scourges of humanity.
Mila (Amalia) Sandberg-Mesner (1923- ) Author
Relation to Author:
Anusia (Anna) Wasserman-Mezei (1932-1977)
(Daughter of Dunek and Ziuta)
Bubcio (Adolf) Sandberg (1909-1914)
Clara Elberger (1890-1942)
(Sister of Fanny)
Dunek (David) Wasserman (1897-1993)
(Husband of Ziuta)
Esther Elberger (?-1934)
(Wife of Josio)
Fanny Elberger-Sandberg (1889-1942)
Frieda Besner-Elberger-Kimmelman (1868-1942)
Jancio (Jan) Elberger (?-1941)
(Husband of Clara)
Jasia (Judith) Elberger-Stern (1927- )
Josio (Jósef) Elberger (1892-1933)
(Brother of Fanny)
Lola (Lotti) Sandberg-Viezel (1919-2001)
Moses Elberger (1868-1897)
Ziuta (Rose) Sandberg-Wasserman (1908-1990)
Zygmunt Sandberg (1882-1942)
On September 17, 1939, Germany occupied
the left part of Poland and
the Soviet Union -
the right part.