In the Mouth of the Wolf

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Wolf
3.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Copyright © 1983 by Rose Zar and Eric Kimmel

All rights reserved

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Zar, 1923-

In the Mouth of the Wolf.

Summary: The author describes her experiences in wartime Poland and how she survived the Holocaust by passing herself off as an Aryan.

1. Zar, Rose, 1923–     —Juvenile literature
.
2. Holocaust, Jewish (1939–1945)—Poland—Personal narratives—Juvenile literature. [1. Zar, Rose,
1923—   .2. Holocaust, Jewish (1939–1945)—Poland—Personal narratives. 3. Jews—Poland—Biography.
I. Title.
DS135.P63Z318 1983 940.53'15'03924 [B] [92] 83–4399

ISBN-13: 978-0-8276-0382-0 (paper: alk. paper)

ISBN-13: 978-0-8276-1172-6 (electronic: e-pub)

ISBN-13: 978-0-8276-1173-3 (electronic: mobi)

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content

 

 

I dedicate this book to the memory of my parents,
Bela and Herman Guterman,
and my little sister, Pola;
to the memory of my husband's parents,
Regina and Alter Zarnowiecki,
his sister Rachel, and his brother Chaim;
and to our children,
Regina, Harvey, and Howard.

 

If you're ever on the run
and have to hide,
the best place is
right in the
mouth
of the
wolf.
•
—Herman Guterman's advice
to his daughter Ruszka

Prologue

 

 

the young woman in the gray coat with the fur collar, simply sit staring into the darkness, awaiting whatever challenge the new day will bring
.

The young woman's name is Ruszka Guterman. She is nineteen years old and already that night, she has looked on the face of death twice. But no trace of fear marks her face nor any hint of the gnawing anguish she feels inside. The people on the train do not even suspect she is Jewish. But I know, just as I also know what she is feeling in her heart on that long night ride south. I know…because I was there
.

I was that young woman. This is my story
.

Escape from me Ghetto

 

 

      The Jews of Poland knew the end was coming. In fact, we had known for a long time. The casual brutality that marked our everyday existence, the random, senseless beatings and shootings, the murderous forced labor details were all early indications of what the Germans had in store. Added to that was the studied official callousness that set up ghettoes—decrepit districts where Jews were forced to live—drove thousands of people into areas scarcely able to hold a fraction of that number, then denied them the most basic levels of food, shelter, and medical care. With time, according to their calculations, disease, starvation, and simple suicide would write an end to the Jewish people.

But the projections were wrong. Jews failed to die off in sufficient numbers. The extermination program was falling behind schedule. So the Germans, with modern scientific efficiency, developed a solution to solve the problem. A final solution.

My friends and I first learned of it as early as 1940, when an emissary from the Jewish underground in Warsaw came to speak to our youth group. I was seventeen then. We were young Labor Zionists, members of HaShomer HaTzair. Mayer Zarnowiecki, whose father owned a dyeing and chemical cleaning business, was president. He was also my boyfriend. The emissary was a young man whose name is familiar to anyone acquainted with the history of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. It was Mordecai Anielewicz. As we gathered that night for a special meeting, he told us that time was growing short. The Germans were preparing to murder every Jew they could lay their hands on: rich, poor, young, old, men, women, children. It was already too late for our parents' generation and for our younger brothers and sisters. The hope of our people rested on our shoulders alone. Each one of us had to make his or her own decision. He outlined three choices. Though the difficulties were grave, it was still possible for a few to escape to Palestine. Those who spoke Polish flawlessly and whose features were not Jewish could try passing as Aryans. Some, at least, would survive that way. But as for himself, Mordecai Anielewicz explained, the only course was the third: to go down fighting, with a gun in his hand, holding high the honor of the Jewish nation, so that none could ever say we went like sheep to the slaughter. He urged us to make our choices soon, to get our false papers ready, to do our best to purchase guns and ammunition. He promised that the Warsaw organization would try to help us as much as it could.

But the end came sooner than anyone expected, stalking north along the railway. Haggard, wild-eyed strangers appeared telling terrifying stories of how the ghettoes in Radomsko, Sosnowiec, Częstochowa were cleared, and of a camp called Treblinka, where fires burned day and night. Our city, Piotrków, was the next major stop along the railway. It was already the summer of 1942. Its turn was coming.

The first indication that something was about to happen occurred when the Germans surrounded one block of houses with barbed wire. Access to this compound, which came to be known as the “small ghetto,” was through two gates. Since such a tiny area could accommodate only an infinitesimal portion of the ghetto's population, it was obvious what the next step would be. They were getting ready for the transports.

Though outwardly life followed its everyday patterns, the air in the ghetto was charged with tension. People began disappearing. Friends, neighbors, people one used to see every day on the street suddenly vanished. Some went into hiding; others crossed over to the Aryan side. Wherever they went, they were gone without a trace. Then the blondes appeared. Girls with strong Jewish features, olive complexions, and dark eyes bleached their hair and became blonde overnight in the pathetic hope that if their hair were yellow they'd somehow be able to pass as Polish and run away. Others, more practical, tried to find jobs in shops and cooperatives manufacturing dresses, coats, shoes. They enrolled in vocational classes teaching tailoring, woodworking, carpentry, shoe repair, hoping that if they had a skill, they might somehow be exempted from the selections. Especially sought after was an
Arbeitskarte
, a certificate declaring that the bearer was an employee of the German military. Equally desirable were jobs in factories and shops working under
German contracts. One ingenious group of young people obtained work cards by collecting woolen rags and reprocessing them for the Army, which purchased the reclaimed wool for uniforms.

Our family, too, made its plans. But, unlike others, we didn't rush about frantically, clutching at impossible hopes. My brother Benek and I, my father decided, could pass as Poles, roles for which our upbringing prepared us very well.

Benek was sixteen. I was eighteen and a half. Neither of us looked especially Jewish. No one in our family did. My mother had beautiful red-gold hair and the bearing of an aristocrat. My father was dark, but with features that were more Russian or Ukrainian than anything else. In our home we spoke Polish perfectly without the slightest Yiddish inflection, a legacy of my mother who was equally fluent in Russian and German. Furthermore, we knew the basic teachings of the Catholic church. My brother once attended a Catholic school and listened in when the priest came to teach the religion lesson. He knew the catechism as well as any Catholic boy his age, and I learned it from him. Most Poles are devout Catholics, and our lives depended on knowing the details of their religion as well as we knew our own.

But we also needed papers. Every citizen had to have an official passport, stamped, containing his or her photograph and the proper signatures. A baptismal certificate was also necessary. These papers had to be carried at all times and presented to the authorities upon demand. This was where my father's expertise came in. In his younger days he had been an artilleryman in the tsar's army. After the revolution of 1917 he deserted and made his way to Warsaw, where he met my mother. When the new Polish republic went to war with the Bolsheviks, my father decided he'd
had his fill of fighting. He ignored the order to report for duty and spent the next two years as a fugitive, hiding from the police. His experiences then helped us now. He knew everything there was to know about false papers and shared his knowledge with us.

“All sorts of documents are being sold on the street now, but you can't buy just anything. I know. I was there. I'll tell you what you need. You want a real passport, not some counterfeit that someone printed up in a cellar. You want a real document printed on official paper with the real stamps and the real signatures. Try to get a passport issued to a real person. Then all you have to do is substitute your photograph for his. Stay away from forgeries if you possibly can. That's what the police will be looking for. The real thing will cost a lot of money, but it's worth it. Believe me, it may save your lives.

“Also, you don't want anything in your documents identifying you as brother and sister or showing that you are related in any way. There must not be the slightest connection between you. That way, if one of you is caught, the other will still have a chance to escape. Avoid any papers with the same last name. Avoid any papers with a name ending in ‘-ski' or ‘-ska.' Every Jew is becoming a ‘-ski': Kowalski…Rostowski…. You don't want any part of that. It's the first thing they'll look for.”

Getting false papers was a difficult, dangerous business. It took a long time, and we were extremely lucky to get the good sets of papers we did. I used my underground connections to obtain a blank passport for Benek, one stolen from a government office. I gave my brother's picture to the forger. He attached it and put on the official seal. Benek later filled in his own personal data. He chose as his new name that of a boy he knew at school. Tadeusz Stempien.

My passport gave me even more trouble. Selling false documents was a crime. Those caught were executed. Even outright forgeries were hard to get. Obtaining a real passport was almost impossible, especially since I needed a document whose owner's description matched my own. By sheer luck I was finally able to obtain a passport and baptismal certificate belonging to a woman named Wanda Gajda. Mayer, who was quickly becoming an expert forger, helped me “personalize” them. We steamed off the glue holding her picture and pasted in my own. Then Mayer carefully drew in the portion of the official stamp that cut across the corner of the photograph. He did an excellent job. Anyone examining that document under a magnifying glass would be hard put to say it wasn't real. However, the real problem was that this Wanda Gajda was born in 1913, making her ten years older than I. I couldn't possibly pass as a twenty-nine-year-old woman. Anyone noticing that birth date was bound to get suspicious. What was I to do? Mayer studied the problem and arrived at an ingenious solution. Taking a fine-pointed pen, he carefully change the 3 into an 8, reducing Wanda Gajda to the much more satisfactory age of twenty-four. We were finished. My documents were a work of art.

“But Mayer,” I asked, “what about you? Do you have a good set of papers?”

He sighed. “Ruszka, with a face like mine, who needs papers?” We both realized the sad truth. With his strong Jewish features, the best set of papers in the world couldn't save him. He would stay in the ghetto and take his chances.

My parents felt the same way. My mother bought a baptismal certificate, but I doubt she planned to use it. My father didn't have any papers at all. Yet ironically they both had an excellent chance to survive.

In my mother's case, her flawless command of the Polish language and her self-assured manner would enable her to blend in easily once she was outside the ghetto. As for my father, he was bold, resourceful, daring, and already familiar with the intricacies of life as a fugitive. In short, they both could have passed were it not for my sister.

Polcia was six years old, the worst possible age: old enough to talk, but not old enough to understand the situation. Furthermore, she stood out. Her huge dark eyes and blonde hair were a striking combination. People loved to talk to her on the street, and she wasn't shy about answering. What if someone asked her to say her prayers? She was too small, and there was too little time to teach her everything she had to know. My parents' chances with Pola were nil. Rather than abandon her, they chose to remain in the ghetto. But Benek and I were going!

My father had reservations about Benek being on his own. Perhaps he was still too young. So instead he arranged a job for him in a plywood factory manufacturing prefabricated buildings for the Army. When the final selection came, Benek would go to the factory, my parents would go into hiding, and I would leave the ghetto.

But where would I go? Again, my father thought of everything. Some months before, we learned of an old couple named Banasz living on the Aryan side. Mr. Banasz, it turned out, was a converted Jew, a fact he had managed to keep secret for years. But now, with the Germans forcing even converted Jews to move into the ghetto, my father was able to work out an agreement. Mr. Banasz would live with us. In return we would use his apartment outside the ghetto as a depot for storing property and valuables, and also as a safe haven should one of us slip over to the Aryan side. Not that we had any illusions about Mrs. Banasz. The
frightened woman quickly regretted ever having gotten involved. But so long as her husband was living with us, we didn't have to worry about her turning us in.

When word came that the action was coming, my sister Polcia was to run to the Zarnowieckis' house and warn Mayer's sister Rumka. She and I would immediately take our bags, sneak out of the ghetto, and go to Mrs. Banasz. My suitcase was packed and ready. It contained a change of clothes, sweaters, underwear, personal items, and, hidden beneath everything, a silver dinner service: a negotiable item in case of emergency. Rumka had three valises bulging with sweaters, men's suits, bundles of dyed wool in every color, and several valuable antiques, including an exquisite gold watch presented to her father by a wealthy baron and a solid silver Hanukkah menorah, a large, heavy piece. It was far too much baggage for one person to carry, so she brought the suitcases over to Mrs. Banasz's apartment ahead of time. The plan called for Rumka and me to spend the night there and catch the train for Ostrowiec in the morning. Ostrowiec was a small farming town in southeastern Poland. Mayer's uncle lived there. According to Mr. Zarnowiecki, he knew the peasants quite well and would help us find a safe place to hide out in the country.

By now rumors were flying like grasshoppers. The air was charged with terrified anticipation. Someone had seen SS men—elite Nazi troops—and their Ukrainian auxiliaries coming to surround the ghetto. The final action was scheduled for tonight…tomorrow…the day after tomorrow. The first time we heard these rumors, I grabbed my suitcase and hurried to Mrs. Banasz's apartment, where I spent the night. Nothing happened, so the next morning I returned home to find Benek just coming back from the plywood
factory. As soon as we entered the house, we saw that something was bothering our father. He was thinking.

“No,” he finally decided. “It's silly to take chances. I don't trust those Germans. Benek, forget about the plywood factory. You have your papers. The next time we hear something, you go with Ruszka to Mrs. Banasz, too.”

So we did—several times. But each proved to be a false alarm. Benek, Rumka, and I were getting tired of hopping back and forth. In the future we decided to wait until the last possible moment. Then, if it appeared that something was really about to happen, we'd run. But after still another false alarm, we changed our plans.

“Forget about Mrs. Banasz,” my father said. “Don't spend one extra minute in this city. When the warning comes, all three of you go straight to Ostrowiec.” He even worked out a plan for getting us on the train. Not many people go to a small town like Ostrowiec. It would be very suspicious for three people to suddenly show up at the Piotrków station on the night of an action wanting to buy tickets there. It was better for us to buy tickets for different points, split up, and arrange to meet later on. According to my father's plan, only Benek would buy a direct ticket for Ostrowiec. I would buy my ticket for Koluszki. Koluszki was the main terminal in central Poland. I would take the train to Koluszki, leave the station, buy my ticket for Ostrowiec, then come back in. As for Rumka, she was supposed to walk the five kilometers to Moszczenice, a little town farther along the railway, buy her ticket to Ostrowiec at the station there, and board the train when it arrived. She arranged for the son of one of her father's Polish employees to carry her bags and, more important, go into the station and buy her ticket for her. This was all admittedly round-about,
but if everything went well, we would be together on the same train bound for Ostrowiec by the time it left Koluszki.

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Wolf
3.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Shadow Patrol by Alex Berenson
Edge of Darkness by J. T. Geissinger
Sympathy for the Devil by Howard Marks
Borribles Go For Broke, The by de Larrabeiti, Michael
Flashover by Dana Mentink
A Nurse's Duty by Maggie Hope
One Night in the Orient by Robyn Donald