First, I must remind you that not every Holocaust survivor was in a concentration camp. There were many ways to survive: in the forests as a partisan, as a child rescued by The Kindertransport, as “an enemy of the state” in the Soviet Union or just hidden in a church or someone’s house or barn a là Anne Frank.
The important thing was to live through that time, to survive.
I happen to have been there, and I am here, able to tell you that, because, without meaning to, the Russians saved me when I really needed saving. My father said, “When the Germans reach Krakow, we are going East.” That didn’t take long. The Germans invaded with tanks. The Polish Army still had a horse cavalry.
When the day came to leave, my parents were not sure what to take. They did pack some basic necessities. They also took some silly things. My father took a stack of stiff collars. He never used them, not even once. They weren’t even good for trading. What did pay off for us were socks. Also a silver pocket watch which my father traded for a pig. But that was much later, in Siberia.
Back to the hysterical packing. They took all our pictures, for which I am grateful. They also packed a lot of bedding, for which I was very thankful. Finally, my mother knelt down and kissed the kitchen doorstep goodbye, never to see it again.
We left at dusk in a horse-drawn wagon. There were very few cars and there was no gasoline. There were quite a few wagons, like a caravan of mostly friends and relatives. At first, I rode with my parents, but my mother was distraught, so I asked to ride in my uncle’s wagon. My mother did not object. He was my favorite uncle and he frequently took care of me. The wagons were rocking, it was dark and I fell asleep.
Suddenly, German planes appeared overhead and started to drop bombs. The horses were spooked by the noise and bolted. My wagon turned over. Everyone ran away and, in the tumult, they forgot all about me. I woke up with the wagon turned over on top of me. No one was around. It was dark and I was all alone. I was five years old. Imagine!
After about a half hour, someone noticed I was missing. To me it had seemed like an eternity. I had been kicking and crying, But no one heard my screams. The feeling will stay with me forever. Finally, some men came back, lifted the wagon and got me out.
Many, many years later I was in Israel, at Yad Vashem, and there were similar wagons on display. I must have experienced some sort of flashback because, all of a sudden, I started to cry hysterically. I was embarrassed, but I was glad that the memory had not stayed buried.
Another memory: Our wagons arrived at a small town named Bilgoraj in Poland. It was already occupied by German soldiers, but the atrocities hadn’t yet started. It was still just an “ordinary” war. We moved in with another family. It was very crowded.
After we left Bilgoraj, we began hiding out in the cellar of a bombed-out house. There was no food, except for a big barrel of pickles left behind by the original owners. My uncle’s baby was six weeks old. That was my cousin Barbara. My aunt had no breast milk left (if you don’t eat or drink, you don’t produce any milk). Everyone was terrified that if the baby cried, the Germans would find us. So, every time she cried, someone stuck a pickle in her mouth. She loved pickles, even as an adult.
We could not stay in that house forever. So, sometime during the night, my father snuck out and quietly dug a big hole in the ground in a farmer’s field. Piece by piece, he dragged all our possessions out of the house and hid them in that hole. Then he got me and my mother and parked us in the same hole. Then he went foraging for food. He brought back some carrots and potatoes. We ate them raw. During the day, we rested. When night fell, the pattern was repeated: My father dug a new hole, we moved again and my father went foraging for food.
In that manner of survival, we got to Lwow (then in Poland, now called Lviv and part of Ukraine). After about a year in Lwow, where we lived with another family, Hitler broke his treaty with Stalin and started advancing East. As the Russians retreated, they ordered everyone to become Russian citizens. My father refused. He told them that the Russians are barbarians and that “we will stay right here and wait for the nice, civilized Germans.” Most of our relatives who became Russian citizens ended up in gas chambers. We were labeled “enemies of the state” and shipped out to Siberia.
And that is why I am alive today!