I was born and grew up in Brzenica Nowa, Poland. My father had five brothers: Yitzchok Henech, Yisroel, Avrohom Hersh, Duvid, and Ben Tzion. We were very religious, Ger Hasidim. We dreamed about Israel. I went to school and learned to speak German. At 1:00 PM, I would go to the cheder (Jewish religious school).
I never knew my grandfathers, although I remember my uncles and aunts (but not all their names). The maiden name of my grandmother on my father’s side was Rosenwald (first name Mindel). She married at 14 years of age and had many great-grandchildren. All my cousins from my father’s brothers perished in the war except for one son of uncle Duvid who currently lives in Omaha, Nebraska. Uncle Avrohom Hersh had one son who was killed in an accident before the war and a daughter who had studied in Germany and worked in Belgrade at the Polish Embassy.
The maiden name of my grandmother on my mother’s side was Tondosky (first name Tzilca). My mother had a brother in Zeluf, a sister Devoyreh in Veloine and Rosza who lived in Lodz. Another sister was Ita who lived in a suburb of Lodz with her husband Calvaria.
My aunt Rosza was an amazing woman. Whenever I brought her food in the ghetto she would ask me how I got the food – was it gotten in an honest manner. She was so knowledgeable that she was able to teach boys Gemora (Talmud). After the war, I met boys who had been her students.
When I was young, I worked occasionally in a grocery store in Breznica Nova, every two weeks or so when I was needed. I often went to Lodz and would work in a grocery store. Before the war began I lived with family in Warsaw. A few days before the war started, I returned to Breznica Nowa. My father had already died a couple years before the war and I went to see my mother.
After the war began, and the Germans came, September 28, 1939, there was a lot of bombing. I went by train to Warsaw to see who was left in the family after the bombs had started coming. I went back to be with my family. My brother Chaim was taken by the Germans for “work.” I never saw him again.
German soldiers burnt our home in Breznica Nova. My grandfather had other home where he had lived and we ran there. I left a note on the table saying we were going to the woods for my brother Chaim to be able to locate us. Then the Germans later ordered us out of the woods to come back home and we returned back to our grandfather’s home.
I went to Lodz by myself to be with my mother’s sister, Ita, then to Warsaw to see family and then back to Lodz. My mother was living in Breznica Nova with family members.
In Lodz, there were Polish children on the streetcars who would point out the Jewish kids to the Germans. One day my cousin and I were on the streetcar to go to buy food. She had dark hair and looked Jewish; I had blonde hair and blue eyes. The Germans took my cousin to jail for one night, but they didn’t take me. Some Polish kids had heard my cousin speaking to me. I was afraid and ran to a building where Jewish people lived although they were strangers to me. They gave me a scarf to tie around my head and instructed to do laundry. When the Germans came, they didn’t recognize me as a Jew and left without arresting me.
The Germans ordered us to the Lodz Ghetto which was established in an area called Balut. Mainly poor people lived there, but there were some people who were rich. Families, no matter how big they were, had to share just one room. I lived with my cousin, Kaza Yitta, a daughter of Aunt Rosza. Every day there were all kinds of gezyras (restrictive edicts).
People were killed in their homes, other people were being rounded up, and houses were burnt. I lived on Balutzky Renek, maybe number 5, with my cousin. Something was happening all the time. The Germans kept building up the ghetto. The Jews had to work, for example in shoemaking, in factories. The Germans often took out young men, they said for work, but actually the men were sent to concentration camps.
The food was rationed, and we couldn’t live on the small amounts we were given. People became sick and died. The Germans destroyed houses where people were rounded up in one room. I had typhus in 1940 and was in the hospital. I felt better and took out the thermometer from my mouth so that the Germans would not to know I was sick. They were shipping sick people out to concentration camps. I think it was in 1941 when the children from the ghetto in Lodz were taken away, babies up to 17 year olds.
In one week, 25,000 were taken away and thrown into trucks. If you looked young they sent you away with the children. A neighbor woman who was a widow with a big family had her children taken from her. I walked over to her and she said, “What kind of life is this with no husband and no children?” I told her to go to the Germans and to beg for her children to be given back; she had nothing to lose.
She knelt down on the ground in front and begged and the Nazi responded since you are such a mother take back your children. This was very unusual for a Nazi to act in such away as generally they were drunk and had no mercy on anyone.
I lived in the ghetto until 1944 and was working, plaiting straw. We worked all the time. We braided the straw in one building and then it was taken to another building to be sewn into the boots of the German soldiers who going to fight in Russia. Sometimes while we were working, the women would use some of the straw to heat up the little bit of soup we got as rations. I also took whatever food I could to distribute to elderly.
Toward the end of the war, some cousins were cooking in a building. We heard the Germans walking with Jewish policemen up the stairs to check on who was on the other side of the steel doors. We were not allowed to be in that building. When they got to our door, the Jewish police said there was no one inside and the Germans left. I went to get some things, but I might have been seen or heard by the Germans.
In the in the Lodz Ghetto, a Jew by the name of Chaim Rumkowski was appointed by the Nazis as a leader. He was about 70 years old by then and married a woman who was 40. I went to hear him speak. Can you imagine, he said that he would be satisfied if 10,000 Jews would be left? A Jew saying that!
When the ghetto was liquidated in 1944, there were some people along with a few children, numbering around 500, left to clean up. I left Lodz with a group of people and was sent to Auschwitz.
When I arrived there, I thought it was a “crazy house.” I was wearing a lot of clothes and had lots of luggage. A German soldier said we all were to be killed. They cut our hair, took away all our belongings, gave me an examination and a dirty dress to wear and mismatched shoes. Then we were sent to the barracks to sleep on the floor but I couldn’t sleep.
I remember one Jewish woman who was a Kapo. She was very cruel, hitting a lot. She would give food to certain people, but not to those who were Polish. I also remember a particularly beautiful girl who was with her mother and was “used” by the Germans. One time when Mengele was examining people, he selected a young chubby woman to be taken to the crematoria. She was unmarried but Mengele said she was pregnant. I was naïve then and asked him how it could be that she was pregnant when she wasn’t even married. Mengele changed his mind and let her live. I once looked in a building where there were women he had experimented on.
Then I was sent from Auschwitz to Stutthof. I once looked in a building where the Jewish women were working and saw Germans making experiments with babies.
We were always cold and freezing and held hands with each other to keep warm. We didn’t have a way to keep clean, no showers, and we were full of lice. It was a “finishing” camp near Hamburg and Bergen-Belsen. There was almost no food and nothing to drink. We were not allowed to use the water. Animals were treated better. They used to take out dead people from buildings and pile them up outside. I could see the bodies through the windows of the building and would try not to step on the faces of the dead people.
Near the time of liberation, the Germans brought a transport of young girls from Lita (Lithuania). They started to liquidate them and would shoot prisoners from the guard tower. A Russian guard said the Russians were close by, fifteen miles on one side, ten miles on the other side. He told me to come to him and said to tell the girls from Lita they should come out to talk with him. He would tell them where their husbands and brothers had been sent.
Once I was picking vegetables that had been in the ground growing. A German woman was guarding us and chose me and some others to go with a group. I was very afraid of the woman who was the leader, the Kapo. She had her back to me and I ran away to rejoin the women who were still in the camp. The woman forgot about me but the rest of them were sent to the crematoria.
Before we were liberated by the Russians, Jews were sent to walk to the Baltic Sea and packed on a boat like herrings. The Germans killed those who couldn’t walk. At the sea, we saw many ships from many countries, Italy, Norway, and France. We spent a number of days enclosed in the boat out on the sea and were not allowed to go on the deck. No one wanted us.
We saw a ship called the “Capercorna.” They would throw us a bit of bread to us and we would drop strings attached to containers to get water to drink. We were on the sea for about three weeks.
The boat was stuck and couldn’t move. Some Poles on board took boards from the ceiling and pushed the boat to the water’s edge. They left. The town where we landed had not yet been liberated. We left the ship, but there were many girls who simply did not have the strength to leave the ship and were shot and killed by the Nazis.
I was afraid of the Germans. I was in the middle group of those who jumped into the water with my friend Alla. It was up to our necks. We were forced to walk and walk to a town. We asked for water but the Germans in the town wouldn’t help the girls, not even with a bit of water to drink. They took us to the middle of the town and gave us a bit of soup. Then the Germans told us we had to return to the ship. We started to walk again. Some of the Germans ran away and some of the soldiers changed out of their uniforms while they were walking toward the sea with the crowd.
We were not far from the port and were liberated by the English Army in tanks. We stayed there for a few months and were taken care of by the English. The British wanted to kill the Germans because they had killed all the women on board who had not been able to leave, the disabled ones, the ones too weak to walk.
After liberation, I went to a DP (Displaced Person’s) camp named Landsberg am Lech, near Munich. My cousin wanted to go to Paris, but I decided I would go only to the United States.
I married my husband Mendel in 1948. He had received secular education in Warsaw and knew many languages including, Spanish, French, and Latin, and knew literature and religious studies and also had Smicha (Rabbinical degree.) We stayed in the camp until 1949, after my son Yosef was born.
I went to a technical school and learned to make women’s undergarments. I still have my books from then. We had papers to go to live in Cleveland but instead we moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where my brother was.
We thought that Jews in America were all religious. In St. Paul, my husband worked very hard, long hours, in a fish department in the Central Market. Our son Mayer was born in St. Paul. My husband learned to become a shoichet (kosher meat slaughterer) but was earning very little. I used to have many guests.
We moved to Omaha, Nebraska and raised our children there. We made sure that our children learned what being Jewish means and we thank G-d all of our children today are Orthodox Jews raising their own families following the Orthodox tradition. This is really our triumph over the Nazi Holocaust.
In Omaha we had two more children, two girls, Esther who lives in Jerusalem and Rebecca who lives in Far Rockaway, New York.