Outbreak of war
In September 1939 the Germans bombed Lwow. We hid in our cellar while the next door house was destroyed. The Soviets invaded Lwow and two Politbureau men were billeted in our flat for a while, until it was taken over by the authorities and we moved in with my grandmother on a different floor. There were acute food shortages, so my mother sold furniture and clothing to buy food on the black market. There were deportation raids going on – we often slept at the homes of friends to avoid being deported. Other family members were sent to Kazakhstan. Eastern Poland was occupied by Germany in 1941, when it attacked the Soviet Union and the Wehrmacht rolled in to Lwow. They were terrifying with their strict discipline and menacing air. Killing of Jews started immediately. After only a week all Jews were ordered to move to an area in the Jewish quarter and leave behind all their possessions except a bundle of clothes. I remember my mother using my father’s skis to pass valuables through the window to a friendly gentile neighbour for safekeeping.
The Jewish quarter was very crowded, there were over 100,000 people living there. There were 17 of us in one room, including my grandmother, my uncle and aunt, my mum and I. My father had fled to Romania – he went with nothing, so he earned some money from sculpture and survived with the help of a very small refugee allowance from the Romanian government. My parents have never given me a satisfactory explanation of why they split up and I read between the lines that the relationship wasn’t all that marvellous. And it was generally believed that women and children would be safe, if or when Germany occupied.
So we stayed behind and we were caught up in the Holocaust. That was tough. Normal life came to a standstill. We were short of everything but somehow we always had enough to eat. I never starved. My mother had a bit of jewellery which she gradually sold to keep us in food. The black market was operating. My mother was a very energetic, ingenious and enterprising person, with great courage. She actually got a job in a slave factory where women were taking apart damaged uniforms of the German army and putting together the good bits to make useable uniforms. People thought if they worked there they’d be safe, but that turned out to be false because they were collected and just taken to a transit camp and from there to Auschwitz or Majdanek or another concentration camp.
Lwow ghetto was one of the first to have Jews transported to death camps – in huge numbers. In 1944 by the time the Red Army came into Lwow, from a Jewish population of about 100,000 there were only 200 or 300 Jews remaining. They had been sent to concentration camps, forced to do slave work in factories, been deported or shot. You could walk in and out of the ghetto provided you were wearing a yellow star and carrying an ID card. But we always lived in fear of raids. Some raids were specifically designed to pick up children. Sometimes, worried about my safety, my mother would take me with her to the factory where I’d sit quietly watching the workers. At the end of one such day we were stopped at a checkpoint on the way home by an SS soldier and a Ukrainian militiaman. Mum pleaded in fluent German that she had always been a lover of German music, literature and drama. The SS man was quite unmoved. She then tried another tactic: ‘This boy is not Jewish and I can prove it because he is uncircumcised’, to which he replied ‘How dare you lie to a German, he has the same dirty snout as you!’ In the end mum only had one weapon left: ‘Haven’t you got a wife and children?’ ‘Yes, I have a boy and a girl. Go on, run away!’ We took off fast, hearts pounding with terror and exertion.
Everyone lived in constant fear. I remember thinking ‘Where is this just and merciful God now?’ It was the end of my faith.
There were numerous hiding places. A German man sheltered us on his farm in Mosztyn for a while, but as a normal eight year old boy I wanted to roam, and it became too dangerous. I remember my mother taking me to another place in the city where the woman locked me up in the flat all day with a dog which howled mournfully. I slept on a pile of carpets there. But I was seen by a neighbour so I had to leave.
Another time, German soldiers arrived at the house with a list of resident children, demanding to take me away, but Mum had seen them coming and had me taken away via the back door. After that she put me in the care of my grandmother’s former cook, a gentile, who was doing it for a payment. It put her in great danger of course. Anybody caught harbouring a Jewish child could be taken to a concentration camp. She got frightened and brought me back just in time for me to see a group of people sitting on the footpath – including my Mum – ready to be loaded into a truck guarded by Ukrainian militia men and a German soldier. I went upstairs and from a window watched them all being herded into the truck and saw it drive away. I found my grandmother who had been hiding in the attic. I said to her ‘I’ve seen mum being taken, I don’t want to live, I’m going to jump out the window now’, and she stopped me. Later my mother told me that when the truck came to the gates of Janowska the transit camp, she jumped over the tailboard and ran up to the officer at the gate and said in fluent German ‘There’s been an error. I’m a war effort worker, here’s my ID, that’s where I work’. He said ‘OK stand over to one side’. There was another woman in a similar situation, and the two of them were ordered to wait. Everybody else was herded into the camp, and the two women were put back on the truck and driven back into town. The Ukrainian guard who had beaten them with a stick apologised to them on the way back. So I got my Mum back.