One Woman's Story

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One Woman's Story (Name Withheld) - Poland

 

This Survivor was born in Stopnica, a small town in Poland, in 1923. She was the youngest of three brothers and three sisters. Her father had a yard goods business, and the family had a comfortable life. Her eldest brother was 19 years older than she. When she was a girl, he moved to Lodz and opened a sweater factory.

 

She was a teenage girl when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. When they took over, the Nazis began remolding Poland in the image of their own country. They instituted laws that discriminated against Jews, stripping them of their civil rights. Soon, all Polish Jews had to wear the Yellow Star, there were curfews and restrictions on movement to obey, and school attendance was forbidden.

 

In 1941, the Nazis began sending Jews from the ghettos to labor camps. Families were routinely torn apart. In 1942, they started requesting that young people "volunteer" to be sent away to insure the safety of the older ones left behind. The Survivor and one of her sisters were sent to the Skarzysko camp, where they were made to handle dangerous chemicals used for the manufacture of munitions. Handling these chemicals caused their hair to become red, their eyes to turn yellow, and made everything taste bitter.

 

Every day after roll call, and any selections that might take place to separate out those deemed unfit to work, they were marched to work at the factory. If anyone tried to escape, all were punished for it. You could be severely beaten, tortured, or executed right on the spot for any defiance. When someone was condemned, they had to dig their own grave. The guards would watch and taunt the person as they dug out the hole, and when the person finished they put a bullet in their head. If there was ever a question as to whom was responsible for any infraction, oftentimes the whole group would be assembled, and every tenth person shot. They were put to work for 12 to 14 hours a day. They were given a ration of food (a little bit of very sour, dark bread, and a little thin soup) to last the whole day. The Survivor's group was lucky to have a humane supervisor who gave them some extra food from time to time. Still, life in the camp was an unending series of atrocities. It's hard to believe, but during all of her stay there, there were no suicides.

 

In 1944, the prisoners were loaded onto cattlecars. They were shipped en masse to Leipzig, and were given no food or water on the days of their journey. In Leipzig, they were given a shower and some different clothes. Many had no shoes to wear. The Survivor's own shoes did not even fit at all.

 

Around 20,000 women of all nationalities were housed in one large barrack. Again they were used as forced labor, working with ammunition. The winter was very cold and wet and the prisoners went to work in nothing but a dress and no shoes every day. Everybody was fatigued and nearly frozen. There were selections now every day. Many died from starvation and disease.

 

In 1945, the American army neared Leipzig, but before they could reach the city, the Nazis withdrew and took their prisoners on a Death March. They were driven at a pace of 15 to 25 miles a day without stopping for shelter or food. Many died along the way, and many others were killed for dropping out of line to grab a raw potato, rhubarb, or a raw beet plant from the farm fields they passed. Incredible hunger overwhelmed the fear for some people; the Nazis shot anyone who left the line. They were made to sleep outside in the cold and rain, and so others perished from flu or tuberculosis. Anyone who could no longer walk was shot immediately. They were marched like this for several weeks, until May 8th, 1945.

 

On May 7th they were in Bavaria. They came to a barn where the Nazis seemingly left them. The War was lost for Germany and many of the Nazis were only worried about escaping at this point. The women spent the night there and found a little sugar to keep them going another day. The next day, they cautiously checked to see if the Germans were gone. They spotted some soldiers approaching in the distance. These turned out to be Russian troops, who told them they were free.

 

The women were taken to nearby German houses where the Russians ordered the residents to take care of them. They were allowed to wash, and given new clothes and food to eat. Sadly, still more of the survivors of the camps and the Death March died because they ate too much food to quickly and they expired from dysentery.

 

The Russians provided a horse and cart for a group of the women to travel to Lodz for the purpose of finding any friends or relatives who also survived. The Survivor met her future husband there. They were married not long after the end of the war. When they tried to emigrate to Palestine, they were stopped in Cyprus and sent back to the Landsberg Displaced Persons camp near Munich. They had a child while staying at the camp, and the whole family lived in one small room. They were waiting at Landsberg for 4 years for a visa to go to the United States. A cousin of her husband lived in Buffalo, New York, and it was there they came to settle. The Survivor never went back to Poland. Her husband went back once to search for his niece, but he never found her. Nobody from either of their families had survived the war.

 

Although it is difficult for her to discuss her experiences during the Holocaust, the Survivor feels it is her responsibility to keep the memory of it alive, so that history can never turn away from the reasons that so many people like her died.

 

 

Related Resources for this Speaker:

Books

The Cage

Sender, Ruth Minsky. Macmillan, 1986.

 

Behind the Secret Window: Memoir of a Lost Childhood

Toll, Nelly S. Dial Books, 1993.

 

Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood

Tec, Nechama. Oxford University Press, 1984.

 

Videos

Childhood Memories of the Holocaust

20 minutes