Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
ESCAPE FROM BELZEC; SAVED BY A PAIR OF HEELS
When the German army punched into Poland on September 1, 1939, my mother's family still had three weeks before the Nazi conquerors would seize the ancient city of Lublin. The family had lived in Lublin and its environs for centuries. It was a large, learned, middle class family, integrated in Polish society and culture to the degree that Jews were allowed to integrate. My mother, Hanna, lived in a big old townhouse with her parents, her older brother, the customary live-in domestics, and extended family and friends dropping by at all hours of the day.
As the Germans were approaching, my grandmother begged my mother to flee east, to Lwow, to relative safety. Lwow had just been occupied by the Soviets, by prior understanding with Hitler. Although life under the Soviets was harsh and perilous, compared with Nazi domination it was considered the lesser of two evils.
Hanna, twenty-four and a teacher of German literature, was reluctant to leave, but she could not ignore her mother's entreaties. She took the train to Lwow.
Her travails under the Soviets would end in July 1941, when the Germans, breaking their pact with Stalin, pushed east. Within hours of their entry into Lwow, the Germans sicced Ukrainian mobs to large-scale pogroms of Jews. Later, they decreed that all Jews must relocate to a ghetto.
My mother would have none of it. She decided to escape to Warsaw. On the train to Warsaw, the German Railway Police arrested her.
At this point, the commentator had better move aside, leaving only the translator. Those who saw the face of Chiron while being rowed across the Styx, and who swam back to the shore of memory, have a right to tell their story that cannot be usurped. They have a unique insight, too. The survivor of a holocaust possesses knowledge about the human species that the rest of us are rarely privy to, for he has seen people's character alloys melting even at the periphery of the evil furnace, revealing their true proportions of base and noble metals.
"They stopped the train and called one of them, a fat German wearing a helmet. 'Get off the train with her now. You'll take her on the first train back to Lwow, to the Gestapo.'
When we got off, I started asking that he let me go. I say to him, 'What benefit is it to you that they kill me; I am young, what I have with me I will give you.' And he answers, 'I would gladly let you go, but if I do that, they will kill me too.'
He hugged me, this old German, and started stroking my hair. He says, 'Child, I know one hundred percent that you will survive this war, but I will not.' And he took me on a train to the local police headquarters. I spent the night there, in jail. In the morning, they took me away, and he accompanied me.
At the jail, they conducted the first interrogation: who I am. He sat to the side. There was an officer and two sergeants, and they conducted the interrogation. At a certain moment, the officer takes a carbine off a wall rack and orders one of the sergeants: 'Take her downstairs.' And the fat one with the helmet winks at me, so that I won't be afraid. Then he got up, poured and gave me a glass of water. This was a man with a heart. And in the morning, he transported me to the Gestapo, and there I had a real investigation.
I only remember that there was a large commission. One of them walked me to the window and said, 'You see that tree? From that tree you will hang.' Everything was in German.
Then they threw me into a small cell where there were already some thirty people, Jews. Suddenly they opened the door, and threw in a young Polish woman. She cries, 'Woe, they caught me, woe.'
I didn't like the look of her. And she made like she was a great Jew lover, 'Give me what you have on you. If they find it they will club you to death, but I will hide it for you.' I had nothing left, but everybody else started digging out their last coins and valuables from various nooks in their clothing. She took all this, and then disappeared.
After a week or so, they packed the entire prison population, mostly Jews, into a sort of lorries, and took us to the Kleparowski train -- it was a freight train terminal in Lwow. At the platform, they ordered us to take off our shoes and overcoats, take off our clothes and deposit them in piles. Then they started herding us into the train. Polish train engineers stood by, and they were saying, 'Folks, jump from the windows, we will be going slowly.'
I entered what was a sort of freight train, but with barbed wire. But before, when we were still being processed at the Kleparowski terminal, one of them stood -- they had a sort of steel whipping rod, with a little steel ball at the end -- and that's what they beat people with. He looked at me just so and said, in German, 'Ah, we have yet a few pretty women for the good-bye.' With the steel rod, he picked up one of my shoes and tossed it to me, then the other. Those shoes saved my life.
Because, I had said I wanted to jump from the [little] window, but there was an iron grid there. So I took the shoes and knocked out the iron grid; various people knocked out the grid, and they hoisted me up -- I don't know for the life of me how I managed to squeeze through that [little] window.
It was, more or less, noontime. With that, on each wagon's steps they stood with rifles. My goal was only that they shoot me; it was noon, impossible that they not see me. Let them kill me; I didn't want to die in agony.
I thrust my head through first -- but I couldn't jump with my head upside down. I had to turn around. I swear I have no idea how I did it; after all, I am a coward.
Before, in the train car, next to me stood the lawyer, old Mr. Axer -- a well-known personality in Lwow, one of the great lawyers. 'Child, what are you doing? Why do you want to jump to your death? We are traveling to a camp; you are young, you will be working.' And I say, 'Don't you see that we are not traveling to a camp? If it were a camp, would they have stripped us?'
QUESTION: "To which concentration camp was the train going?"
ANSWER: "Not to a camp, there was no camp there; there were only gas chambers."
QUESTION: "What gas chambers?"
ANSWER: "Belzec, notorious. That's where they hauled people; it was a death factory."
CONTINUED: "I crossed, and that peasant saw me and he says: 'That they sit here and wait.' And I am thinking to myself, 'He went to call the police; so be it, if that's my fate.'
After half an hour, he comes back with a pitcher of milk and a big piece of bread. He gives them to me and says, 'That they drink, eat, and leave with God.'
To this day I say -- since Jews have bad feelings about Poles -- I assert that we who survived, a small percentage though it be, none of us would have survived if in some moment he did not get help, usually without ulterior motives, from some Pole. It was impossible [to survive otherwise].
I started walking, walking -- it was September -- I was gathering wild blueberries, and that was what I ate. Only at night I walked. During the day, I lay low. When it got dark, I would start walking. I did not know where I was going.
It's a bright day, I am walking, and suddenly I see a woman walking towards me with containers of milk. She saw me and crossed herself, 'Jesus, Mary; Jesus, Mary,' because I looked like, you can imagine. She took off her apron and covered me -- for I was naked."
This was only the end of the beginning of my mother's experiences during World War 2. She would escape certain death, improbably, at least three more times, not to speak of the daily dying she endured for six months in the infamous Janowska labor camp.
In July 1944, the Soviet Army liberated Lwow from the Nazis, in order to enslave it in turn. The Allies' betrayal of Poland at Yalta resulted in Lwow becoming a Soviet Ukrainian city. Most refugees from western Poland were allowed to repatriate.
My mother returned to Lublin as soon as it was possible. Her family was not there. The family house was not there. The street on which the family house had stood was not there. The city ward in which the street had been was not there. It was all rubble. Eventually, the site would be paved over.
Hanna had been corresponding with her mother, so she knew how the family had fared during the occupation. On a busy street, in 1942, the SS had shot to death her brother, a young lawyer and promising mathematician. In the same year, the SS had taken away her father, and sent him to his death in Belzec. In 1943, her mother's time had come. Again, I'll let Hanna speak:
"I still got a postcard [in Lwow] from my mother. I later learned that on the day on which she wrote the card, there was a liquidation [aktion, or roundup]. 'My dearest, beloved daughter,' she wrote, 'this is my farewell'... no, I can't."
I never did learn what else had been in that postcard. There is a zone of private pain that even a son may not enter. Records show that my grandma was murdered at Majdanek, as were the other remnants of her --and my --family.
When I was born, the war had already ended. The Germans(*) had wiped out the family, looted its possessions, destroyed its houses, burned its mementos and documents — but for a long time I was unaware of that. All I knew was that, for some reason, I did not have the grandparents, aunts and cousins that my friends had. I also perceived that, uniquely, our home did not contain a single personal artifact, even a piece of paper, predating 1945.
My mother did not tell me about her lost family and lost years anymore than my father did about his. Eventually, in my late teens, I started asking, and she told me something. It wasn't until she was in her late seventies that she told me more. I recorded it.
I was too stupid, and too busy getting ahead in the world, to do the same with my father. He died at 67, having told me almost nothing about how he had lost his family, or how he had survived the war. The only scrap of information I have I retained from our conversation about his acute rheumatism, when he mentioned that he had lived in snowed-under forests, alternately fighting or hiding from the Germans.
One day, perhaps I will visit my native country that I left fifty years ago. I'll go and pay my respects to my grandparents at Majdanek and Belzec. Then I'll walk from Belzec toward Lwow along the railroad tracks. Maybe I will find a forest clearing, pick some wild blueberries, sit down and think about it all.
(*) I feel that it's unjustified to say that the Germans were Hitler's willing executioners, even though millions were. My mother shared this feeling, and the fat man with a helmet nods in approval. Nevertheless, even with the many thousands of executioners who must have been unwilling, and hundreds of noble heroes who, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, gave up their lives to oppose evil, in this particular war, in which Aktion Reinhard was just one component from hell, the scale of the evil, and usage patterns of the languages of the victim peoples (e.g. Polish), permit me to use this broad generalization.