Back in 2011, my mother Brenda was asked to write a short article about her life before the Second World War in Poland for a book called ‘Behind the Rose’, published by the Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire. As that article had to be significantly shortened for publication, the full version appears here, with the original and some additional illustrations. Sadly, Brenda died in 2013, and was never able to write the promised second part about her life here in Britain, but one day, perhaps I, my father and my sister will attempt to do it. For now, here is…
Now that I have passed four score years, the time has come to leave a history of my family to my children. When they were young, I thought they wouldn’t understand; when they became teenagers, they were so happy to be alive, so why spoil it with nightmares? But now times are repeating themselves, so they need to know.
How do I begin to describe a life so different to the one I have now? I suppose by starting at the beginning…
I was born in a small town in Poland named Chrzanow, situated between Krakow and Katowice. The town had very little to distinguish itself from any other, but it had a locomotive factory that was well-known. The community was half Christian, half Jewish, and most of the time lived in harmony. There was a square (the Rynek) in which a market was held every Thursday (picture 1), a large church and a few small synagogues. The children studied in two Polish schools, but in the afternoons the Jewish children had a cheder where they took religious instruction.
My mother’s parents, five brothers and two sisters lived in the centre of the town – the Richter family. Grandfather had a wood yard (picture 2), selling fuel for home fires and bakers’ ovens. My father (picture 3) was a tailor: he came from a town called Brzesko, near Tarnow, but settled in Chrzanow when he married my mother – our surname was Schagrin. As I remember my childhood, we were always happy, never hungry or cold, and the larger family was ever there to help each other when needed. My immediate family – mother, father and two sisters – lived in a flat with two rooms and a kitchen. One of the rooms was a bedroom, the other a workroom where my father employed three people in his tailoring business (picture 4).
My sister Lea and I began school when we were seven years old (my little sister Gusta was still a baby) (picture 5). There were 30 in my class, of which only five were Jewish. We did not attend on Saturdays or on any Jewish festival, which was unfortunate as missing so many classes meant that we did not get good marks at the end of term. Saturday was the best day of the week. After lunch, all the family, including my uncles, aunts and ten cousins, congregated at my grandparents’ house. There was a lot of talking and laughter, and all the children played in the yard – we all had a lovely time.
During the summer, grandmother and one of my mother’s maiden sisters hired a room in a country village from a farmer, and took the children away for a holiday. We had a nice time picking fruit and playing with the animals.
Before Rosh Hashana everyone was getting ready for the festivals. Above my grandfather’s flat lived the chazan from our biggest synagogue, who hosted rehearsals for the services, including Kol Nidre, with the choristers. All the neighbours used to sit in our yard and listen, as if it were a concert. You could see their smiling faces: life was a joy to behold – heaven on earth.
The summer of 1938 brought an influx of Jews from Germany who had been evicted from their homes. Some had family in Chrzanow to stay with, others had to find their own accommodation. The awful stories of cruelty they told were unbelievable: the German folk were known to be civilised and cultured people. There was a feeling of fear in the air.
My father came from a large family (picture 6), although because his home town was far away, I only remember visiting them once. He had three brothers who had emigrated to England some years earlier. Because of the worsening situation, they tried to get visas for our family to come to England to be with them, but they were refused. My father also had a cousin in Australia. He was more successful, obtaining both visas and tickets for us to travel there. Unfortunately they did not arrive until the end of August 1939, and by then it was too late: we were stuck.
Some of the men of the town, including my father, decided to head east (the women, children and older folk stayed behind, because despite the stories, it was thought that they would be safe). However, the invading German army soon overtook them, so they turned back. As they tried to return, they were shot at, and some were killed. My father and a cousin returned to the town over the fields distraught and very frightened. We were all hiding in a cellar, while up above, people were looting the Jewish shops.
Eventually, things calmed down. The Germans enlisted the Polish people to help them identify the Jews, and started rounding people up to perform hard labour. That partnership continued until the last Jew left Chrzanow. Life was now totally abnormal, and one had to learn to keep out of trouble. Every day brought new decrees, food became scarcer, searches continued and men were sent away to the forced-labour camps.
In May 1940 a curfew was introduced which started in the early evening, even though it was still daylight. The Germans became adept at finding Jews who had somehow broken the law, arresting them and taking them away, never to be heard of again. One family of bakers, Israel Gerstner and his two sons, were rounded up (someone had told the Germans that they were using their bakery to make illegal bread). Mr.Gerstner’s granddaughter was my friend, so I knew the family very well. The Germans decided to hang them, along with four other Jews they had arrested, and that the whole Jewish population would be made to witness it. Everyone’s documents would be stamped to show that they were there – anyone whose documents were not stamped would be put to death. The Jews obediently came, men, women and children. The Germans were wearing their best uniforms, led by Commandant Schindler and Gestapo Chief Lindner. The Poles came uninvited, but happy to be there. We were scrutinised as the hangings took place to ensure no-one left, and were forced to stay watching the dead bodies until curfew. Only then did they permit us to take down the bodies for burial.
In summer 1941, the Germans decided to set up two factories, one making rubber products, the other making army uniforms. My family had to work shifts in the tailoring factory, which was set up in a former old-age home. The night shift was very hard and tiring, but somehow you felt safe.
One morning, we were told to get ready to move to a different part of town. We left everything but our clothes and went. The next day they rounded up almost all of my mother’s family, the Richters: my grandfather, all my uncles and cousins and all but two of my aunts – that was the last time I ever saw them. We were at work, so we survived this time.
On February 18th 1943, the Jews were called to assemble in the market place. It was a very cold day. We stood there for what seemed like hours. Tables were set up, at which sat an S.S. man. We went up to the table as a family: my father was sent one way, my mother and little sister another way, and my sister Lea and I were marched off crying to the railway station. It was not until long after the war had ended that we discovered that my parents and little sister had been sent to Auschwitz. All we had was what we stood in. My mother had told me to put on my best black velvet dress which she had made for me. The only other things I had were a little dorothy bag containing four photographs of my family.
The train journey was very long and took a whole night. On the way we stopped at Sarnowiec and got out. There were hundreds of people at the station and all of a sudden my two aunts found us in the crowd. Very quickly we were parted again and my sister and I were forced back on the train to end up in Neusaltz-an-der-Oder after another long journey.
It was already night time when we arrived, and despite the freezing weather we were made to have a cold shower. They took away our shoes and underwear, giving us wooden clogs to wear, and put us in a barrack where we huddled cold and crying until the morning. Then, without food, we were sent to the factory called ‘Grushwitz Spinnerei’, which made cotton on spools. At least we were together with other girls from Chrzanow: we were all allocated to the same new barrack and we looked after each other.
The work at the factory was very hard. We had two shifts; my sister Lea and I were on different shifts, so we only saw each other on Sundays when we had to do our chores in the barrack. The machines in the spinnerei were very big – looms which spinned cotton through water onto spools. There were about 20 machines altogether, and whenever the spools were full we had to remove them and put empty spools in their place so that the machines could start again. We got very wet, and then had to march back to our camp in the cold.
Every morning we got a hot drink that looked like coffee; in the evening we got something that looked like soup, which was usually hot water with a few bits of swede floating in it – it tasted horrible. Twice a week we received a slice of bread, which was eaten before we even got back into the barrack.
The Juden Elteste, or commandant, that organised the camp was a very nice person: I never saw her hurt anyone. But we also had a Capo (supervisor) who was constantly beating the girls and shouting at us for no reason at all. When we left the barracks to go to the factory the S.S. were in charge: they were very cruel. For example, there were plum trees on the route to the factory, but if any of the girls picked up a plum they were punished by making them kneel down holding a brick in each hand above their head for two hours.
The German women in the factory were also very unkind: although I worked at the same machine for two years, I never received a kind word. Sometimes one felt as if life was not worth living.
In February 1945, we were assembled in the square and told that we will be leaving Neusaltz. The 1000 Jewish women prisoners were marched out of the camp and for two weeks we slept en route in the fields, freezing cold, wearing only a dress and wooden clogs and with no food, until eventually we arrived at Flossenberg. There we were put onto coal trains, 80 people to a wagon. The trains were being bombarded, but they did not open the wagons. Out of the 80 people in my wagon, only 9 survived the journey, which took us to Bergen-Belsen.
We arrived at the end of March, most of us very ill. We were put into the barracks, and made to carry dead bodies to the mass graves. After only a couple of days, both my sister and I contracted typhus, but we were still made to work and given no treatment. I don’t recall exactly how long I was there, but through a haze I remember the British soldiers coming into the camp. After weeks without food and water, people were dying all around us.
At the end of April, I woke up in hospital. Beside my bed was a woman who told me she was my cousin Mina from Brzesko (picture 7), and explained how she had found me and my sister. She said that the British soldiers had come to Belsen and liberated us. They had decided that to stop the spread of disease, they would bury the dead in mass graves and burn the barracks. Mina was a nurse, and she was told by another woman that there were two young girls in one of the barracks still alive. She came to look for us and went through my dorothy bag, finding the photographs of my family and recognising my father as her uncle.
It is difficult to describe our state of mind and health. We were suffering from malnutrition, our bodies were covered in running sores, we had lost most of our teeth and the ones that were left were very rotten and caused us constant toothache. Our stomachs were ulcerated, and we could not digest our food properly, leading to diarrhoea.
We were looked after by the British soldiers until the Red Cross nurses arrived. We occupied the living quarters of the S.S. and it took a month before we had the energy or peace of mind to consider what we might do next. After we heard that to return to Poland would not be possible, as we would not be welcome there, Mina told us that we had family in London. It was very hard to get visas to enter Britain, but our uncles worked very hard and after nearly a year, we travelled to England via Paris. The channel crossing was very bad, but from the moment we were met at Victoria Station on 7th May 1946 until today, life has been heaven on earth. But that is a story for another time…