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All That Was: Chapter Fourteen - The Warsaw Ghetto - Part Three

“We witnessed with the deepest sorrow and disbelief as Dr Korczak led his orphans along the streets from the orphanage at the corner of Sliska and Sienna to the Umschlagplatz. I was standing on the opposite footpath in Zamenhofa Street near the intersection with Novolipki Street. I was reduced to tears as I watched the tall, erect, bearded silhouette of a brave man lead the little children to their death. They were walking in pairs. Some were holding hands…’’

Lusia Przybyszewicz describes the daily horrors experienced by Jewish people who were herded into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 by Nazi invaders.

Lusia’s never-to-be-forgotten words will make readers weep – and it is right that they should do so.

Lusia’s vivid and well-written autobiography – a work of literary merit and historical importance - can be obtained from her at PO 404 Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia ($25 Australian, plus postage).

Already by the end of 1941 all the indications were pointing to an impending catastrophe. In order to survive, smuggling on both a large and a small scale became entrenched.

The regular Jewish police (Ordnungsdienst) comprised many very decent, compassionate men, but it also included several 'rotten apples'. In addition to this regular Jewish Police Force, there arose at the beginning of the year a special Jewish police unit, an offshoot of the Gestapo. Since their headquarters were at Leszno 13, they were called The Thirteen (Trzynastka). Because of their very special powers, they were dreaded by the majority of Ghetto dwellers.

They were led by a notorious crook named Abraham Gancwajg. They practised the crudest forms of extortion: blackmail, bullying, and denunciations were their grizzly tools of trade. Only they and their cronies remained still well-fed, well-clothed, and well-lodged. While most people around them were dying of disease and starvation, they owned restaurants, nightclubs, and delicatessen outlets. This further widened the chasm between the haves and the have-nots. They even conducted a Yellow Ambulance service, which was used more often for smuggling than for tending the sick and the dying.
Worse still, by January 1942 the relative security within the walls of the Ghetto was shattered by the increasing visits from the SS officers.

I recall having a kind of stroll with my father near a Ghetto wall one day, (though on reflection, one was always near a wall!) An SS man was standing there keenly watching the meagre attempts of a Polish child smuggler. The boy was trying to shove some food through a hole at the bottom of the wall. He obviously prearranged the transaction with his Jewish counterpart. As he was unable to see who was the real recipient of his merchandise on the Ghetto side, the little fellow had no idea that each item that emerged from the hole was immediately snatched up by the amused officer.
The merciless winter 1942 brought with it ever more sinister news causing much foreboding to the entrapped population. Some people were killed in reprisals for no apparent reason; many were caught and punished for breaking the law in some way; others kept on dying anyway.

I saw the execution of six Jewish men in the courtyard of the notorious Pawiak prison with my own eyes. They were lined up against a wall, just like in the movies. Then, six shots were fired. The men fell to the ground one after the other. At the time I was visiting someone's flat. The flat looked down at the prison. It was in either Dzielna or Pawia Street. By Nazi order, the windows were permanently screened, but we succeeded in watching the scene through a hole in the blind.

Jews were also being hunted on the Polish side with renewed vigour, as the Polish 'szmalcowniks' denounced those in hiding who were slowly running out of money and consequently were no longer in a position to pay for silence. We did not need much imagination to realize that the scene was more or less set for 'the final curtain'; yet, we did not readily wish to believe that we were all condemned to die.

After all, it was a very difficult concept to accept, when you personally felt that you should have every right to stay alive for a long time to come and the right to plan for your future. It was equally impossible to swallow the notion that the world gave up on us. Surely someone, especially the Americans, would come to the rescue.

I recall another example of Nazi wickedness. Early in 1941 a brief fad occurred during which the Ghetto inmates with connections in the U.S.A or Palestine were encouraged to register with an office especially opened for the purpose by the Judenrat. Long queues waited in a vain hope of being granted a departure permit.

The idea of resettlement in Madagascar, canvassed at one time by the Germans, might have kept up the morale of the very naive.

The inner turmoil, a mixture of terror, despair and hopelessness, was well illustrated by a joke about a Ghetto Jew. On his bended knees, he kissed the boots of his German captor and begged for permission to say one single word on the phone. After lengthy pleading and humiliation, the German granted him permission. The Jew grabbed the receiver, dialed U.S.A. and yelled into it: 'Gevalt!'

Sometime that winter Bela and Stefanek moved into the Ghetto from Bracka Street on the Polish side, for fear of being denounced and killed. Father found some lodgings for his sister, and we stayed in touch with them to the end.
Unless you had heaps of money, food became practically unobtainable. The Trzynastka and all of the other lowest forms of life in our midst fared, of course, much better throughout that period.

I remember a Jewish girl from my class at Orzeszkowa, who suddenly surfaced about that time. Here name was Halszka Z. I had never had much to do with her at school. She was very pretty, healthy looking, and she had a fresh, peasant-like face, set off by thick dark hair, tightly knotted into a long plait at the back. We soon learned with horror that she was actually married to an SS man. This union empowered her to conduct a roaring trade in and out of the Ghetto. We did not wish her well!

At home, food supplies were almost exhausted. Very often, Mother and I produced simple 'pancakes' (placki) from a paste made of flour and water and baked directly on top of our fuel stove. Carrot juice, which we extracted by hand, was a very welcome supplement to water.

I do not believe anyone felt uplifted by the advent of the spring 1942, especially so because over the years we had all grown conditioned to a life without trees, flowers or green open spaces of any sort.

Each member of our family was very undernourished by then. Bolek joined the throngs of peddlers, but with little success. I also tried my best. For a short while I worked in the administration at the Tlomackie synagogue, sorting out some records, probably on behalf of the Judenrat.

Slowly, everyone became so completely absorbed in fighting for survival that all other activities, yearnings or every day pursuits no longer mattered. Moreover, it was rumoured that only those in useful employment would be eligible for food rations. We were powerless to influence events in any way, and we were reaching a state of frenzy.

Meanwhile, to everyone's outrage, Bronia and Adolf, formerly just a niece and an uncle, became lovers. They slept together and moved around holding hands, oblivious of everyone around them. For me, it was the first example of the breaking down of the moral code with which I had grown up. I found it impossible to comprehend how such an affair could take place so soon after Bronia had lost her parents and Adolf had lost his beloved wife. The more my attention was drawn to this new relationship, the more I became aware to what extent the previously accepted standards of morality were collapsing all around me!

And yet the reason was really quite simple. The many individuals who lost their entire families and all of their friends were craving for a meaningful human contact and love. With their world crumbling around them, to go on living they needed propping up: a support from some new sense of belonging.

The deep pathos of a Yiddish song of that period reflected the prevailing mood. The lyrics were but a plea to a poor wretch who had no further reason or will to live. It urged him to dig out a hole in the ground and crawl into it, after firstly letting Pinkert, the Funeral Director in the Ghetto, know his intentions. In Yiddish, the song said: 'Mach do a grab in dreyerd, drik do dort arahn.'

Closer to the summer of 1941 new German workshops began to emerge in some parts of the Ghetto. As usual, their significance was not clear at first. Over time, two large firms grew in prominence: Tobbens and Schultz. We understood that their main objective was to sustain the German war effort with the help of Jewish slave labour. The major purpose seemed to be the sewing and repairing of army uniforms. To us, this latest development seemed like a godsend: the best possible alternative in a dire situation. What else could we hope for in order to scrape up something to eat?

By the spring of 1942 we gradually learned that to gain access to a job, each woman applicant needed to supply a sewing machine. This latest obstacle set us an impossible task right from the start. Since practically everyone still in reasonable health desperately needed a job, the demand for the machines available within the Ghetto was largely superseded by the number of those looking for work.

Thus, a furious scramble began to acquire the elusive but indispensable sewing machine. Every kind of scheme and device was used in the search: bribes, smuggling, blackmail. All of the schemes flourished. The struggle reached a new crescendo when a further rumour spread that only the life of those in employment would be spared.

Naturally enough, it soon became apparent that having 'the right connections' played an important role in securing a job whether you had a machine or not. Even though my mother was exhausted by then, she began an immediate search for people of influence amongst her numerous acquaintances.
As always, her efforts brought astonishing results. She herself needed our sewing machine to secure a job at Schultz. Father was accepted there as a skilled cutter because of his long background in textiles. Bolek, a very fast learner, was allowed to help his dad. The most intricate problem was to find me a job without a machine.

By then spring had gone. A new summer was upon us. In normal times, Bolek would have had his Barmitzvah on 30th June, his 13th birthday.

In early July 1942, Mother at last found a formerly wealthy Warsaw socialite we met in better times at Ciechocinek. She seemed to be in charge of a Tobbens workshop at Leszno. (How she attained such an exalted position we shall never know!) At any rate, she agreed to place me on the list of employees. This was both crucial and timely!

The following week billboards appeared on many buildings throughout the Ghetto. They announced Umsiedlung (resettlement) of Jews from the Ghetto to labour camps somewhere in the country. Good working conditions were assured for all. One bundle of belongings per person would be allowed. At that early stage, the implication was that the first target for deportations would be the unemployed.
We have since realized that that decree was to be the beginning of the end for hundreds of thousands of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews! People were seized by a mortal panic; they reacted in a variety of ways. Some desperately tried to believe the Germans; others made efforts to flee, to hide, or to commit suicide.

Meanwhile, unbeknown to the majority of us, a disused railway yard just outside the northern gate into the Ghetto was in the process of expansion. The ill-fated Umschlagplatz (resettlement square) was ready and waiting. It adjoined Stawki Street, where some sections of the Czyste (Clean) Jewish hospital were still functioning. From there when the selections were completed, the stunned and bewildered victims would soon be loaded onto cattle trains and dispatched to their death.

The first 'Aktion' took place on the 22nd July, 1942.
I have a vivid recollection of that scene in our Novolipki Street block. Under strict orders from the Gestapo, members of the Jewish police (Ordnugsdienst) raided people's homes. They dragged out the elderly and the children, who were all screaming. These people were then forcibly thrown into the waiting horse-driven carts. The police pulled several women by their hair. Some managed to take their bundles with them. Soon they were off. The rest of us who witnessed the deed stayed frozen to the ground, paralysed with fear.

The 22nd July episode prompted the chairman of the Warsaw Ghetto Judenrat, Mr Czerniakow, to swallow his cyanide. He must have saved it for just such an occasion.
That day was but a precursor to the systematic daily deportations from the Ghetto.

Several rabbis were shot on the spot. Orphanages and hospitals were the hardest hit. The wailing of women and the yelling of children became a feature of every day life. Soon, SS men consisting of Ukrainians and some members from the Baltic States with allegiance to the Nazi cause, were recruited to replace the Jewish police, who proved unequal to the task.
For a while, the work permits and so called 'life tickets' were honoured. Later on, I believe, whenever the daily quota of deportees had not been reached, anyone caught in the wrong place at the wrong time was collected to help make it up. People stayed in hiding all over the doomed enclave.
In the first few days of this latest calamity, Adolf and Bronia were taken away. On another occasion, Aunt Bela and Stefanek were forced to seek shelter in a manhole in Leszno Street. The child screamed, probably out of fear of the dark. A German henchman on the footpath heard the scream. The metal plate was lifted, and they were both hauled out and sent on their way.

Our friends' daughter, Bela, was the very talented pianist I described in earlier chapters. She lived in the Ghetto with her parents, Bronek and Sala. About this time, Bela was also taken away. As the Ghetto was gradually emptying, the boundaries were also shrinking. Bronek and Sala's lodgings became excluded from the Ghetto, and they had nowhere to live. They moved in with us.

Their son Stefek, who featured in the chapters about my childhood, was lucky to be in England throughout these years of struggle. His parents sent him to a boarding school at Brighton just before the outbreak of war. There, they hoped he would learn some English discipline.

The sheer horror of that period was so intense and unrelenting that I do not quite recall the order of events. I remember getting in touch with the Polish friends of Ludwik at Bracka Street, whom I had met earlier on, when I had been looking for anti-typhus vaccines. I told them of what happened to Bela and Stefanek. The news upset them greatly.

They and Lucjan Kober were our only contacts on the Polish side. We made some non-specific contingency plans over the phone, which we thought might enable us to find refuge amongst the Christians.

Our first step had to be the procurement of false papers. These papers would cost a fortune. Besides, the danger of discovery constantly lurked around us. The danger was especially great for the circumcised Jewish males like my Father and Bolek.
My Mother was very anxious for me to cross over first. I was to 'test the ground.' Although she never said so, I do not believe she really wanted to take such risks herself. It was heartbreaking to see her look so frail, so despondent and generally spent.

The recent events drained us of all energy. Under the rule of constant terror, we were now in an extreme state of anxiety. We were physically exhausted and barely in a condition to give support to each other. Father tried to be strong and wise, but there was little time for discussions amongst ourselves.
A new very strict regimentation demanded that everyone employed at the workshops, remain on the spot at all times. Walking along the streets became extremely risky. We were restricted to marching in columns, under escort.

By early August ’42 our family could meet only in the evenings, blissfully still at our flat. However, as the month progressed, I barely saw my parents and brother at all. Gradually, it became safer to spend the nights as well at our respective workshops. Since my place of work was at Tobbens and theirs at Schultz, our meetings had to cease.

I remember one particular working day at Tobbens. It was in the early days of the 'Aktion'. I was working with some other girls I knew. We were upstairs, seated at tables of a requisitioned restaurant at Leszno Street. We were sewing buttons on to German army uniforms. Our table was in the corner, by the window. This enabled us to chat quietly. The subject of our conversation was my plan to become an Arian. The girls were all helping me to invent a suitable name. I remember choosing for my Christian name, Krystyna, after my porcelain doll which I cherished as a child at Sienkiewicza Street in Lodz. One of the girls at the table suggested Bogucka as a very fitting surname. We all agreed, and so it stayed!
I think it was ultimately Lucjan Kober who helped me assume this new identity. I became the daughter of Janina Moniewska. She was deceased, and I acquired her birth certificate. My new 'father' was a fictitious Andrzej Bogucki. My correct date of birth was retained, but the place of birth became a remote village in the East, of which no one had ever heard.

Meanwhile, the agony around us continued. Every day we heard of someone else's disappearance. Vitka's father and mother were taken at different times. She was drafted into a bricklayer squad which, during the day, was involved in work beyond the Ghetto walls. One evening Vitka simply failed to return. We never saw her again.

I fled the Ghetto before the big selection known as 'Kessel' (cauldron). The Kessel occurred between 6th and 12th September, 1942. During this time all of the Jews who were still mobile had to present themselves in the streets adjacent to the Umschlagplatz. For those who disobeyed the order carried the threat of death.

One day, during such a selection in the then notorious Mila Street (ironically, meaning beloved), my friend Jasia managed to speak briefly to my parents. They told her they were working for Schultz. Jasia and Stasio, her mother, and her aunt Marysia, were working together with Ipcia P., along with her young brother, Marys and Mara W., at a small workshop, Rohrich where they were sewing backpacks. Jasia was present the day the Nazis came in and 'selected' both Marys and Mara. They left the two much older women behind.

I believe Mara found a lover, just a few days before going to her death. Her mother also perished.

Ipcia was shattered with grief to see her brother go. Against Jasia's pleas, she set off along the empty streets to Tobbens, where her parents were working. German Wache were everywhere along the streets. At Tobbens all of the employees were taken away. Ipcia joined her parents and insisted on going with them into the cattle train at Umschlagplatz. The demise of Erna K., her young brother Jurek, and her family came later. Erna, as I mentioned earlier, jumped to her death out of a burning house, during the period of the liquidation of the Ghetto.

About a month earlier, on the 5th of August, many of us were still about. We witnessed with the deepest sorrow and disbelief as Dr Korczak led his orphans along the streets from the orphanage at the corner of Sliska and Sienna to the Umschlagplatz. I was standing on the opposite footpath in Zamenhofa Street near the intersection with Novolipki Street. I was reduced to tears as I watched the tall, erect, bearded silhouette of a brave man lead the little children to their death. They were walking in pairs. Some were holding hands. Later, Stasio, Jasia's husband, saw them getting on the cattle train at the Umschlagplatz.

I read since, that the Germans offered Dr Korczak immunity, but he refused. He said he felt that his charges would be too frightened to face the ordeal without him.

The miraculous survival of Jasia, Stasio and family is another inspiring example of the might of the human spirit. Their remarkable story deserves a digression.

Until November 1942, Jasia, Stasio and family stayed in the Ghetto. A very kindly Christian cousin who lived on the Polish side sent a decent Polish man into the Ghetto on a search and rescue mission. By then, the Ghetto had become an almost empty enclave. He found Jasia, Stasio and family almost dead from exhaustion. He fed them with smuggled food for a fortnight; then he took each of them out separately to the island of Praga.

To get them out, he had to bribe the guards. Because of his looks and his circumcision, Stasio escaped later on, through a tunnel under the Ghetto. He was then driven in a dorozka through the streets of Polish Warsaw to the cousin. Somehow, he managed to make this trip without complications. The cousin hid them extremely well and watched over their well-being with much devotion.

Eventually however, the employees in her shop smelled the rat and denounced them. Fortunately, the hideout proved too difficult for the Germans to discover. After that episode, the family moved out to a small attic owned by an elderly Polish woman, whom the cousin paid to look after her Jewish relatives. All went well until the Polish uprising in Warsaw in September 1944.

Throughout that month, the Nazis were bombing the city and simultaneously cutting off all power and water supplies to make the Poles surrender. One bomb hit the block of flats where the attic was located; 80 people were killed. By that time, Jasia, Stasio and family were huddled in the basement. By some miracle, a baker's oven held up the crumbling walls above them and saved their lives.

After the surrender, their mothers, uncle and aunt hid with some Polish peasants. Jasia and Stasio sought shelter in the sewers. By moving through the canals of the sewer, they eventually reached the cellars under the former Ghetto. There they found some food supplies that could still be unearthed. They remember well the cellars under 18 Franciszkanska Street where aunt Gucia, Pavilon, and Bronia once lived together with Babcia Fragman. For about five months, they lived down there by scavenging.

They met a few other Jewish escapees in the same situation. In those conditions, in a room lit only by candlelight, a woman had an abortion performed by a doctor. They all remained down below longer than necessary as they were unaware at first that the Russians had 'liberated' Warsaw. From where they were hiding the sound of marching soldiers was the same as before.

From the 22nd of July onwards, no one in the Ghetto had any illusions as to what this Umsiedlung was really about. Some people jumped out of the trains and God only knows how they managed to came back to tell the tale. In the cattle wagons, the victims were packed like sardines. The wagons were hermetically sealed. Many people suffocated even before they reached their destination. They were headed for Treblinka, a village in the Bug River valley, about an hour's drive by car from Warsaw. At Treblinka, the Nazis had constructed their Vernichtungslager (extermination camp) with the aim of liquidating the Warsaw Ghetto Jews.

Zyklon B gas (or crystallized prussic acid) was fed through small openings in the death chamber. To ease people's fears, this chamber was called the 'delousing room', prior to shower. The painful death from the gas took from three to fifteen minutes. The Germans removed gold rings and gold tooth fillings from the dead bodies before disposing of them in the crematoria. There were ten gas chambers. Each of them was capable of doing away with 200 human beings at the one time. Between 300,000 and 400,000 Jews were killed in these chambers.

There, I lost my beloved Mother.

During the worst slaughter between 22nd of July and 12 of September 1942, many of my dearest friends also perished there.

I left the Ghetto for good at the end of August 1942. In my mind, that month is like a most fearful nightmare. Many innocent people suffered total degradation as they were beaten, kicked, or raped before being murdered. One could see children's brains spattered all over the walls against which their bodies were swung by their feet. Through the bestiality of our masters, we became simply the hunted animals whose lives were at their mercy. Our fate depended absolutely upon their whim.

In that setting those of us who were still deemed fit barely dared to walk outside the work place. Gradually, each German enterprise was closed off from the others. The Ghetto occupied a much smaller area. At Tobbens, I was soon transferred to the basement, where the available sewing machines filled the poorly lit sweatshop. I knew none of my workmates. About fifty of us worked in that section. Everyone was seated at his or her machine. There were no Germans inside the building, but they would frequently burst in, day or night, to carry out inspections. Therefore, our Jewish bosses told us to stay put by the machines at all times.

We usually just sat there and swung into action only when we heard the scum arrive. We could not do otherwise even if we wished to, because the supplies of cotton thread rhad run out months earlier. During each emergency, we simply worked the treadle of our machines furiously, to create the right kind of din: the needles bobbed up and down without any thread in them. Mercifully, in the poor light the German inspectors were unable to look very closely at our work.

Later in the month our workshop became inundated with filthy, lice-ridden German uniforms from the Eastern front where the battle for Stalingrad was raging. It was, of course, some consolation to see their dilapidated state. At last Hitler was meeting his Nemesis: he lost that vital battle on 2nd February, 1943.

Meanwhile, our task was to repair the uniforms. With our non-existent resources, each of us was issued with one Wehermacht style metal button. During the inspections, we just kept sewing the button on and cutting it off again in readiness for the next onslaught.

For me, this whole ordeal lasted only a few weeks, yet it felt like an eternity. I spent several nights dosing off with my head and arms resting on my machine. Our breaks for 'meals,' were only brief. We moved in small groups into an adjoining room containing a trestle table and some benches. In the meal room, the jostling, pushing and shoving had a further demeaning, dehumanising effect on one's psyche. Even amongst their fellow Jews, many came to blows over scraps of food or space at the table.

As I was younger, smaller, and weaker than most of the people there, I did not stand a chance against the aggression of the starving, desperate men. If I insisted on receiving something to eat, I was often pushed off the bench. In all honesty, I cannot recall a single man who took any notice of me, let alone any who showed concern for my welfare. When I cast my mind back to the Ghetto years, for me, the scene at the Tobbens 'refectory' remains the epitome of hell.

At an earlier time, while I was working in the workshop, I remember secretly receiving a tin of sprats from the 'society lady.' I hid it, so that I could share it later with my family. When next our family miraculously managed to meet at our flat, everyone was of the view that I should leave the Ghetto. Rumours about the future of Tobbens' employees were not good either.

At about that time, I learned that out of despair, Bronek, Father's oldest school friend, actually joined the infamous Thirteen: he was helping the Nazis at the Umschlagplatz. In that way, he hoped to save the life of his wife, Sala, as well as his own. Of course, it did not work. Sometime in September 1942 all of the members of the Trzynastka were the last ones to board the trains for Treblinka.

I began to make the final arrangements to change my identity before walking out of the Warsaw Ghetto one day at the end of August 1942. I had to pass through a gate which was manned by a Wache. Fortunately, he was corrupt and therefore cooperative. The German and the Polish guards had to be paid. I was stripped and searched, but apart from my severely battered dignity nothing was taken away from me.

Mother equipped me the best she could for my departure. I wore my remaining summer dress, Father's golden chain with a golden pendant in the shape of a coin on which his date of birth was engraved and Mother's gold watch. I carried Mother's leather handbag. It contained some Polish zloty and her powder puff. That handbag, the powder puff, and a note written in my Father's handwriting are my most precious relics from the past.

In retrospect, I know now that saying goodbye to my family at that time was one of the two saddest moments of my life. As a mother and grandmother myself, I cannot even begin to fathom how my Mother must have felt in such circumstances: fare-welling her child, maybe forever. We hugged a lot. Father, clad in shabby navy-blue overalls, walked a little way with me.
His parting words to me were: 'Always remember to follow a straight path.'

I have always endeavoured to do so.


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