Neither of my parents was originally from Warsaw. My mother was born in the shtetl of Zelechow, about a hundred kilometres north- west of Warsaw. My father’s sister, Raizl Oshlack still lived there with her husband Avroomche. My father came from the neighbouring provincial town of Garvolin. Whenever family members from both these places came to Warsaw for business or other reasons, they would look us up or stay with us.
There were six children in my Aunt Raisl’s house, Yossel, Blumba, Tauba, Gedalia, Srulik and Pesale. I knew Yossel best, even though he was three years my senior, because he often accompanied his father to Warsaw. Between seasons, (the family were Komashe – machers- the makers of the uppers of shoes and boots) he sometimes rode his bike all the way to Warsaw, and stayed with us for a few days.
Just before my sixteenth birthday, on September 3rd 1939, the Germans invaded Poland. That was the beginning of the end but we did not know it then.
I don’t have the strength to describe all of my experiences during the war. I do, however, want to give testimony to one experience, which is engraved in my memory, because it took place not during the war, but after the liberation, when we had already begun to breathe fresh air; when our terror of the German murderers had passed. When the world had already returned to its normal order of life, I survived a terrible night – more terrible than the nights in Majdanek and Auschwitz, where I spent almost two years.
On May 17, 1945, I was liberated by the Red Army in the town of Bielivoda, in the Czech Sudeten. With me, was my comrade in suffering, with whom I had endured every camp. Her name was Saba Edelmann, and she also came from Warsaw.
After spending a month in a village in Czechoslovakia, we travelled to Poland to find out whether anyone in our families was still alive. We took trains to Lodz and then to Warsaw, but to our great sorrow, found none of our relatives or close friends. We decided to travel to Zelechow. I thought that perhaps someone from my family had survived there. I had been to my mother’s home town only once before, in 1941. My family was by then living in the Warsaw Ghetto, except for my brother Hershel, who had escaped to Zelechow, to avoid the daily beatings, humiliation and round-ups for hard labour. My father paid a smuggler to get me out of the ghetto so that I could go to Hershel and give him some money to help him survive. I found him well, living with my Aunt Raisl, and proud that he had joined the local fire brigade. My job done, I returned to Warsaw, where I was smuggled back into the ghetto, to rejoin my family. We had no idea about the extermination camps, and believed that by sticking together, we would survive these terrible times. I was the only one to survive.
Now, with the war over, my girlfriend didn’t want to part with me even for one day, although she had no one in Zelechow.
We went by train to Sobolew. I don’t remember the date. The trip took some hours, and then it took another two hours to reach Zelechow by horse and buggy. We arrived when it was already dark. We went to the address of a Polish acquaintance, Wlodarczyk. Before the war he had been the treasurer of the court in Zelechow and commander of the firemen. He didn’t recognize me. When I explained to him who I was, he remembered my family. I asked about their fate and received the answer that none of them was alive. After a brief conversation, he took us to two Jewish men who were boarding with the Polish family Gugala. He thought we might be able to rent a bed there for the night.
We really didn’t have anything left to do in Zelechov, but since there was no transport till morning, we had little choice but to put off our return to Warsaw for the next day. But fate had it otherwise.
We were able to stay at the Gugala house Two other Jewish women turned up as well; that made six of us, the two men already living there, and four women needing a bed for the night. One was Mrs Pearl Feingezicht, who told me that my cousin Yossel and his brother Gedalia had survived, and were living in Lodz. She even gave me the address. I was very excited and determined to go there the next day.
We prepared places to sleep, but as soon as we dropped off to sleep, we were awakened by a commotion at the door and window. We jumped up in terror. I managed to put on my slippers and throw a coat over my nightshirt. Men burst into the house, I don’t remember how many, and we were driven out into the street. I only remember that everywhere I looked, the barrels of pistols and rifles were pointed toward us. The others were also half-naked.
We four women were led out in front of the house and ordered to sit down on a bench. Then the men were led out naked and shot. A boy of twenty fell some three meters away from us. His name was Shlomo Hefner and he was from Zelechow. He had survived the war in the Soviet Union and had returned ‘home’ after the war, only to fall at the hands of the bandits. The second man escaped. The bandits shot at him, but fortunately they missed.
Seeing this, we began to ask the murderers for mercy – not so much asking, as simply begging for our lives. One of us, a pregnant woman, knelt and kissed the bandits’ feet. She was answered with shots. The woman fell dead not far from us; they also shot Pearl Feingezicht. I was third on the bench, and then my girlfriend. She suddenly jumped up and ran off into the house and hid under the bed. Instinctively I ran after her, and received a bullet in my left thigh. Fortunately, the bullet only grazed me, and I was able to keep running. I ran into the room where my friend was under the bed. I turned to her and said,
“Saba, where are you? Turn toward me, I want to hide next to you, I’m wounded.”
“There’s no room here, there are suitcases behind me, hide somewhere else.” answered Saba.
I went into another room, hid under a sewing table in a corner, and covered myself with pieces of cloth.
The murderers came into the room and turned to the Polish family.
“Where are the two Jewesses who ran away?” they shouted. No one replied. They searched under the bed with a torch and found my poor girlfriend. They wanted to pull her out from under the bed, but she pleaded with them in moving words which I will never forget, “Sirs, don’t kill me, I’ve lived through such a terrible war. I’ve lost everything and everyone. Give me life, I want to live.”
A few shots resounded, and my comrade was silenced forever.
Immediately after they killed her, the bandits began searching for me. They came into the room where I had hidden. They searched every corner, under the bed and in the cabinets. They didn’t look under the pile of cloth where I was hidden, because the window was open and they thought I had escaped. The men left, but not before threatening the Gugala family, that if they told anyone what had happened, they would return and shoot them too.
Thus ended the one night I spent in Zelechow after the liberation. Out of the six Jews in the house, only three remained alive. One woman who received a bullet, was slightly wounded and feigned death. When the bandits chased after us, the wounded woman got up and ran away. One man ran away at the beginning, and the third was myself.
My beloved girlfriend, who lived through Hitler’s hell with me and was murdered at the threshold of a new life, was buried together with the other victims of that night in Zelechow, the town where she had never been before, and of which she had never heard.
I was in shock and bleeding profusely from two holes, one where the bullet had entered and the other where it came out. Gugala’s daughter gave me some rags to bind the wounds, and I stayed in my hiding place, terrified, till morning. We were then taken to the house a Jewish family. The handful of Jews remaining in Zelechow now decided to leave that day. First, Victor Yontef, who had survived the war in the forests around Zelechow, took the bodies and buried them. We then went back by buggy to Sobolov.
When the train arrived, it was, as all trains in that immediate post-war time, totally packed. There were even people on the roofs. I didn’t have a hope of getting into a carriage, so I got onto the step with my healthy leg and clung to a bar on the door with all my strength. I was faint, but nothing would have made me lessen my grip, as the train took off. After a while, I heard two young men talking in Yiddish. They were sitting on a platform between two carriages and were quite close to me. I called out in Yiddish, “Help me, I’m wounded.” At the next station, they both jumped down and took me onto the platform with them. They were shocked to see the bloody mess my leg was in. They gave me a drink of water and tried to clean the wound as best they could. They rebound it with fresh cloth, and managed to stem the bleeding. Best of all, they took care of me till we got to Lodz. None of us had tickets, so they led me off the train away from the station and did not leave my side, till they delivered me to my cousins’ address.
It was a shopfront, I opened the door and there was Yossel at a bench, cutting leather for uppers. He looked up and said politely in Polish, “ Yes, can I help you?” I stood there, pale, emaciated, with just a little bit of fuzz on my shaven head and with blood soaked clothes. I said, “Yossel, don’t you recognize me? I’m Chana.” We fell into each other’s arms, weeping. I couldn’t stop the tears for a long time.
He stroked my head and said, “You don’t have to be afraid any more. I will look after you.”
And he did.
Yossel became my husband and we were so close, people frequently called us
Chanayossel without separating the names. Together, we, the remnants of our families, built a new life in Australia. We had a daughter we named after Yossel’s bubba (Sarah), and a son who bears my father’s name (Benjamin). We were also blessed with 3 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren.
Yossel kept his promise for fifty-eight years till he died eight months ago. I am lost without him.