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LIGHT FROM THE SHADOWS     

       Mila Sandberg-Mesner

Published by
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
2005

Cover etching "Hands" by Beata Wehr

Editorial board:
Andrea Axt, Ilona Gruda, Alina Kopeć, Agata Kozanecka

 

ISBN 0-9688429-6-8

Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada

INTRODUCTION

You are holding the eighth publication in our series,
Aby nie zapomnieć - Pour ne pas oublier - Let us not forget

            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.

 

 

Table

Acknowledgments      
Introduction    
Prologue         
Zaleszczyki, My Town           
My Family        
Dr. David Wasserman (Dunek)           
Anusia
My School      
The Concert    
The End of An Era        
Kolomyja: Class of 1941        
June 1941         
Ewa      
The Garden (May - August 1942)      
Walnut Liquor  
Hidden Treasures          
Albin     
The Kolomyja Ghetto  
The Liquidation of The Kolomyja Ghetto          
Our Life As Catholics
Kennkarte         
Going Home     
People In My Memory
After The War Life Goes On    
Epilogue            
Who's Who      
Photos              

Light
from the shadows

by
Mila Sandberg-Mesner

 

Dedicated to:

My husband Izio and the children 
and grandchildren of Ziuta, Lola and Jasia

 

 

Daremne żale - próżny trud,                Set aside recriminations
Bezsilne złorzeczenia!               Stop the sterile struggles
Przeżytych ksztaltów żaden cud           End the empty threats
Nie wróci do istnienia.              Cease the needless curses.

Swiat wam nie  odda, id±c wstecz,       Long gone is the past.
Znikomych mar szeregu -                    Time will not reverse
Nie zdoła ogień ani miecz                     To give back that
Powstrzymać my¶li w biegu.                 Which you have lost.

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 life
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

 

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

 

            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 them down.

            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.

 

 

 

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 of 1939.

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 by mankind.

            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 prisoners.

            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

Zbigniew Malecki studied history and journalism
at the University of Fryburg, Switzerland.
He is a contibutor to many journals.

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

            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 from outsiders.

            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 in Canada,
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 school. Then
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 the military
barracks. The Jews marched there with brooms, pails,
and cleaning rags. Straight to their deaths. Among the
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.

 

 

 

MY FAMILY

 

            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 days.
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 staircase.

            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 creations.

            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 so himself.
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.

 

 

 

ANUSIA

 

            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 up.

            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.

 

 

 

MY SCHOOL

 

            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.

 

 

THE CONCERT

 

            September 3, 1937 was the start of a new school year.
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 songs.

            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 Franio.

 

 

 

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 Wusiek Fell.

            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 too.

 

 

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 to Siberia.

            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 classroom walls.
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 died.
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.

 

 

 

JUNE 1941

 

            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 terror began.

 

 

EWA

 

            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 breakfast.

            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 bullet.

            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 eyes.

 

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.

 

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WALNUT LIQUOR

 

            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.

 

 

HIDDEN TREASURES

 

            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 no more.

 

ALBIN           

 

            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 almost immediately.

            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 and resourcefulness.

            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 from sinking.

 

 

 

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 she could.

            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 was around.

 

            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 the Holocaust.

            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.

 

 

KENNKARTE

 

            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 her.

            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 of residence.

            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 was over.

 

 

GOING HOME

 

            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 to Zaleszczyki.

            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 furniture.

            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 the microscope.

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 house.

            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 GELLES

            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 home.

            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 again.

JANEK KINTZI

            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 ROSENBAUM

 

            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 line instead.

            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 anymore.

 

FATHER PECIAK

 

            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."

 

MRS. ABOSH

 

            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."

 

GEDALIA BARAD

 

            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

            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 casket.

            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.                                                                                       

MIKI

 

            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 love.

            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 Zacharia Stern.

            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 Justin.

            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.

 

EPILOGUE

 

            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 lonely.

            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 Museum.

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.

 

Who's Who

 

Mila (Amalia) Sandberg-Mesner (1923-  )    Author

           
Name:                                                                        Relation to Author:
______                                                                       _______________

Anusia (Anna) Wasserman-Mezei (1932-1977)          Niece
(Daughter of Dunek and Ziuta)

Bubcio (Adolf) Sandberg (1909-1914)                       Brother

Clara Elberger (1890-1942)                                        Aunt
(Sister of Fanny)

Dunek (David) Wasserman (1897-1993)                    Brother-in-law
(Husband of Ziuta)

Esther Elberger (?-1934)                                            Aunt
(Wife of Josio)

Fanny Elberger-Sandberg (1889-1942)                       Mother

Frieda Besner-Elberger-Kimmelman (1868-1942)      Grandmother

Jancio (Jan) Elberger (?-1941)                         Uncle
(Husband of Clara)

Jasia (Judith) Elberger-Stern (1927-  )             Cousin

Josio (Jósef) Elberger (1892-1933)                             Uncle
(Brother of Fanny)

Lola (Lotti) Sandberg-Viezel (1919-2001)                  Sister

Moses Elberger (1868-1897)                                      Grandfather

Ziuta (Rose) Sandberg-Wasserman (1908-1990)        Sister

Zygmunt Sandberg (1882-1942)                                 Father

 

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On September 17, 1939, Germany occupied the left part of Poland and the Soviet  Union - the right part.    


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