The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program

​Before All Memory Is Lost is a one-of-a-kind collection of prose, poetry and diary excerpts from women Canadian Holocaust survivors. These remarkable stories of courage, terror, family, and loss are a poignant bridge to the experience of women facing an unimaginable situation and their fight to save themselves and all they cherish. This is the Holocaust through the eyes of sister survivors.

The anthology is divided up into four sections that paint a dynamic, wide-ranging exploration of woman’s experiences of the Holocaust.

Hiding Camps Passing Soviet Union About the Editor Buy the Book

Hiding

These stories of hiding provide insight into the complexity of human behaviour during the Holocaust. Women desperately search for shelter in a world inflamed by xenophobic nationalism, where their neighbours were rewarded for participating in the genocidal process, and the penalty for aiding the victims was not only your own death but the death of your family.

We also meet the courageous people who risked their lives to provide shelter.

When we read the harrowing stories of Jewish women in hiding and witness their survival in unimaginable conditions, we are forced to confront the moral choices of individuals and the broken world in which they were made.

FEATURING THE VOICES OF


Irena Peritz

Eva Kuper

Magda Sebestian

Bianka Kraszewski

Read an excerpt from Hiding

Hiding

From Eva Kuper's A Beacon of Light

The natural inclination of mothers is to hold their children close when sensing danger or catastrophe. What did that decision cost her? How insightful of her to predict the horror that awaited those on the train, many of whom still believed the German “resettlement” story. How broken her heart must have been as she handed me off, believing that even that small chance was better than what awaited her.

[...]

Each time there was a roundup, people scurried around searching for a place to hide. During one of the roundups, my father, with me in his arms, stood in the water-filled cellar of a factory building, along with a dozen others, while people were rounded up above. The people hiding with us warned my father that, should we all survive the night, he would not find shelter among them again. It was too dangerous to hide with a small child, whose cries could jeopardize the lives of everyone. My father knew the dangers and always carried two cyanide pills in his pocket, determined to kill both of us rather than be taken alive by the Nazis.

My father knew the dangers and always carried two cyanide pills in his pocket, determined to kill both of us rather than be taken alive by the Nazis.

We had to leave the ghetto immediately, before another roundup. My father was convinced that the sewers were our only chance. He arranged with his sister Sophie, who, using false identity papers, was on the so-called Aryan side, to have someone pick us up once we emerged outside the ghetto. My father told me that the trip through the sewers was unimaginably horrible, with filth and rats as big as cats everywhere. It took two and a half hours.

When we emerged, a sorry sight I am sure, my aunt’s friend took us to the home of the Rondios, who welcomed us warmly. Mr. Rondio, though he considered himself a Pole, had been badly treated by the Poles, who naturally distrusted and hated anyone German. Thus, the Rondios had moved into a German section of the city. They felt that they would not be suspected of hiding Jews, so they were not worried about having us there. Since we, in my father’s words, “looked like death” and were pale as ghosts from being hidden so much, they had us lie on the floor of their dining room where the sun could warm our faces and help us look more normal. They fed us and helped us to catch our breath from the terrible ordeals we had lived through. They were very distressed to hear about my mother and to get a first-hand account of life in the ghetto. In spite of their willingness to offer us shelter, my father felt strongly that although we were not safe anywhere, he did not want to jeopardize their safety and very lives by our presence in their home.

My father turned to Dr. Lande, who had been the pediatrician who looked after the children of the fur trade union members. He had known my parents since my birth, and my father was sure that he would be sympathetic to our plight. He begged Dr. Lande to find a safe place for me; since my father could not work and hide his remaining family while caring for a young child, I could not be safe with him. Dr. Lande agreed and told my father that he would be in touch with him in a few days. True to his word, he placed me with Hanka Rembowska, an artist and illustrator of children’s books who was a wonderful woman, already caring for a little girl, Zosia, who, although not Jewish, had been orphaned by the events of the war. Hanka, who was suffering from tuberculosis, took care of us until she became too sick to do so. Dr. Lande then took us to a farmhouse about 450 kilometres away in Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains, in the southern-most part of Poland.

My own somewhat vague memories begin in the farmhouse, which was located on a hill overlooking the town. There were many nuns, on priest and many blind children, all except for Josia and me.

Times were very hard and there was not much food. I remember potatoes. All the children sat in a large circle outside, peeling potatoes. Since the boys could not see, they would peel as best as they could, then pass the potatoes to Zosia and me to remove the missed spots before putting them into the big pot filled with water, in the middle of the circle. Potatoes were the staple of our diet. There was also a cow that cow that I loved. I remember going to get the cow from the pasture at the end of the day when it was time to bring her home for milking. I would hold the thick cord around her neck and pat her soft fur. That milk and the bit of butter that could be made from it were the only wholesome parts of our diet. I also remember sitting around a long rectangular table at meal times with all the other children, nuns and the priest. The priest sat at the head of the table with me on his left side. He was the only one who would get a small square of butter for his bread. He would butter a piece of bread, cut it in half and pass me one half under the table. He did not have enough to go around. I was the lucky one. I was always very small for my age, marked for life by those early years of hunger and deprivation.

Whenever the Nazis invaded the village to renew their supplies and take whatever they wanted, someone would run up the hill to warn the nuns. Perhaps it was not because they knew that a Jewish child was being hidden there. It was good to know when the Nazis were around so that anything of value, such as food and supplies, could be hidden before it was confiscated. Whenever this happened I would also be hidden. I remember it vaguely as being outside in the pasture, in a hole that had been excavated for that purpose. I would climb in, a board would be placed over the opening and the sod would cover the board. I sat quietly in there until the danger passed.

Strangely enough, I don’t remember being frightened. I have no idea what might have been said to me to make it feel okay. I was used to being quiet. Somehow, I was made to feel safe, which is unbelievable to me now, since when I imagine placing my children or my grandchildren in such a situation, I am horrified at the psychological damage that would result.

Eva Kuper at age eight to ten months. Warsaw ghetto, circa 1940.

Bianka Kraszewski and her family in the Warsaw ghetto, 1940. This photo was originally taken as a passport photo when the family thought they could use it to escape the ghetto. They later found out that this was a hoax.

Irena Peritz (centre) and her close friends, Niuta (left) and Janka (right) Teicher. Borysław, Poland, circa 1941.

Magda Sebestian's high school graduation photo, 1948.

Camps

The memoirs in this section illustrate experiences of concentration camps, labour camps and death camps. These women watched their loved ones — the elderly, the sickly, the young and the women visibly pregnant — march to gas chambers. They watched young, healthy mothers carry their babies and toddlers to their deaths rather than abandon them to save themselves. And those not selected for death learned soon enough that their parents, grandparents, cousins, children, friends and neighbours would be counted in a statistic that ballooned into the millions.

Confined to different barracks and subcamps, guarded by separate personnel and removed in selektions for being pregnant or caring for small children, women in camps experienced hardships that varied from those of men. Upon entering the camp, women remained in a purely female world where the hierarchies and camp “politics” prisoners had to navigate to survive were also unique.

Many women coped with the hell of the camps by adapting skills they had acquired in their pre-deportation lives: they created “surrogate” families, adopting one another to offer consolation, assistance or even a slice of bread to a surrogate daughter, sister or mother. In the isolation that followed deportation, they tended to re-create such family groups, many of which made the difference between life and death.

The women’s stories collected here paint a vivid, powerful illustration of the female camp experience.

FEATURING THE VOICES OF


Fela Yoskovitz-Ross

Catherine Matyas

Suzanne (Katz) Reich

Fela Zylberstajn Grachnik

Babey Widutschinsky Trepman

Ida Dimant

Rebekah (Relli) Schmerler-Katz

Read an excerpt from Camps

Camps

From Babey Widutschinsky Trepman's Living Every Minute

Stutthof was a concentration camp where Jews from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland went through hell. Many were selected as soon as they arrived and were sent to be gassed. The night we came to Stutthof, we were lined up and divided - one group of strong, young prisoners to the right, mothers with children up to thirteen years old to the left. Our family was cut in two: Dora and myself to the right, Mother and Sonia to the left. I took courage, walked up to the SS guard and tried to tell him that my sister was fifteen years old and would he please let my mother come with us. He would not even listen to me. There were rumours that the group of mothers and children were taken to Auschwitz that same night and were gassed. Fifty years later, I got proof - I found out through a friend of mine that there is a museum in Stutthof with information in its archives about some of the inmates. I wrote to them and got my answers. The rumours were confirmed. 

During my sleepless nights, another thought that comes to me: Life – how ironic! I could see my mother's happiness when we saved Sonia from the Kinderaktion, but then I think about what happened in Strutthof and I ponder if Sonia would’ve been taken away with the Kinderaktion our mother might have lived through the rest of the war with Dora and me. She was only forty-four years old, strong, tiny, smart, vivacious. Who knows? I have deliberated on those thoughts. They hurt; they do not let me rest. 

The first night in Stutthof, we were all pushed into a large room, naked, and German gynecologists examined us internally in case we had hidden some jewels in our vaginas. What a degrading feeling and how humiliating to young people; they reduced us to dirt. Next, we were shoved into a shower room. We were told to wash up and as we exited the showers the officers threw clothes at us - dresses, shoes, coats. There were no questions asked of whether or not these items fit, and if one of us mentioned that the shoes were too tight, we were all barraged with hits and punches; we couldn’t even anticipate where they came from. The next morning, we started to learn about the situation in Stutthof. One has to be an artist to be able to describe the atmosphere there, to make people understand or to even provide an idea of the place. It is impossible. It was the kind of experience that cannot be understood by those who did not live through it.

... A few days later we heard that girls were wanted to work on farms during the harvest. Dora and I became two of the chosen lucky ones. Life on the farm was heaven. First of all, there was enough food, and second, the security was run by British prisoners of war. All we could wish for was for the war to end as soon as possible. But unfortunately, all good things come to an end. After the summer, the harvest was over, and we were sent back to Stutthof. 

When we arrived back at Stutthof, Dora and I learned that we had missed one event: the shaving of the girls’ heads. Dora and I stuck out like sore thumbs. My dress was very long, and so we decided to cut it off and use the material to make two headscarves. We wore them all the time, completely concealing our hair. Again a little luck - we saved our hair from being shaved. 

Just a few days after we returned to Stutthof, the guards were choosing five hundred women to work in an ammunition factory in Ochsenzoll, near Hamburg. Dora and I looked really strong after the summer on the farm, so we had no trouble being chosen. Ochsenzoll was a fairly small camp. It contained two barracks with about 250 women in each. We worked in a factory, making ammunition, in two shifts. Overlooking the production were civilian Italian workers, and many of them helped us out with an extra piece of bread or other food items. 

Our first commandant at Ochsenzoll was a real murderer. When we arrived back from work, he kept us for hours on the Appellplatz, the roll call place, counting us over and over again. We were lined up in rows of five, and while he was counting, the first person in each row was hit on the head with a thin stick that looked like a conductor’s wand. Of course nobody wanted to stand in the front, and so Appell time was a disaster, with people shoving, pushing and falling, and that was what our commandant was waiting for. Then he really got outraged and started throwing punches and hitting people like a lunatic. One of our friends was made to stand all night on a pile of peat for “misbehaving.” It was bitterly cold that evening, and it was a miracle that she came out of this ordeal alive.

We were really fortunate that he lasted only a few months at Ochsenzoll, and then we got a wonderful human being as commandant of our camp. Life became bearable. This was also only a few months before liberation, which helped. Every Sunday, our commandant chose a few women to dig potatoes for the kitchen. Most of us loved the job, because there was a chance to steal a few for the inmates. I wore a small sewn bag hanging from a belt, and while I was digging up potatoes in the field, I also filled my bag. My coat was big and I put some potatoes in the bag around my waist as well as in my large pockets. One day when we returned from the potato field, we were stopped, asked to open our coats, and to leave all the stolen potatoes on the ground. My sister and the other girls watched through the bunk windows, shivering and wondering what was going to happen to us. 

I walked into the bunk, opened my coat and yelled out triumphantly, “May they all go to hell!” I still had my little bag full of potatoes hanging from my belt under my coat. When the commandant told us to empty our pockets and the rest of our clothes, I did so, but I took a chance and left the little bag in back full of potatoes. Dora wanted to kill me. She couldn’t understand how I could take a chance like that. But we all cut up the potatoes, stuck them on the stove and enjoyed the special feast. After liberation, we said that we were the inventors of potato chips. We felt as though we were the first, making them in Ochsenzoll on our bunk oven. 

We stayed in Ochsenzoll until about the beginning of April 1945. Hamburg was being bombed constantly and one morning, we were packed onto a train and shipped to Bergen-Belsen. The trains stopped in the village of Bergen and when we looked out, we saw a large field full of men sitting next to each other, legs crossed. We decided, for some reason, that there were no Jews in that group.

When we came to the Bergen-Belsen camp gate, the girls in our group started saying, “This is the end, we’ll never survive this.” Dora said, “It won’t be so easy, they will make us suffer, torture us before they will be ready to let us die.” And this was true. Bergen-Belsen, in the last days before liberation, was a camp that committed mass murder by plainly neglecting the inmates. By the time we came to Belsen, dead bodies were lying around one on top of the other like garbage piles. Corpses were found all over the place, rotting in the barracks and outside. This horrible situation was beyond anybody’s imagination. The Nazis absolutely dehumanized us. People from different countries, different backgrounds, were brought together, confined in the dirty, cramped bunks, deprived of all necessities, living in the most degrading conditions. All human weaknesses and passions are let loose in such situations and people’s selfishness and mean behaviour were unimaginable. 

The dirt, mud and lice made it impossible for us to keep clean. Our daily evening activity was to kill the lice. The elastic band of our underwear was full of them. The more you killed, the more came back the next day. It was a losing battle. 

All day long people were shuffling about, carrying little cans (just in case they found some food), arguing constantly, swearing and making life intolerable. Meal time was a disaster. When the kapos turned up with cans of soup, which was more like dishwater, the inmates pushed one another as though they were ready to grab a treasure. The weak and sick ones got pushed and stepped on and could not even get near the soup. The Nazis turned us into animals; they drove us out of our minds. The sores of malnutrition - ulcers, boils - were an everyday occurrence. Epidemics were spreading. One day, the water was cut off. In the communal wash place, all of us stood close together, the wind blowing in from outside, the filth, refuse and excrement all over the place. Some cold water dribbled out of the taps and everyone fought for a drop.

Our food in the first few days was turnips and water - one bowl, if you were lucky. The systematic starvation in Belsen was atrocious. Auschwitz was a camp of mechanized genocide, but Belsen killed the inmates by starvation, violence, terror and the spread of infectious diseases...

I got typhus a few days after my arrival in Bergen-Belsen. This is a horrible disease. Your hunger disappears, the headaches are intolerable, you become delirious and you have diarrhea. You feel near death. My place in the bunk was on the top tier. When I got sick and tried to step down in order to go outside, the diarrhea took over. The people around me made my life miserable. They were so mean, called me piece of shit and cursed me. I kept telling Dora to let me die, leave me alone, but she kept repeating, “You mustn’t die, you have to hold on. What will Mama say after the war? She will look for us, and if she does not find us, she’ll die. You have to keep fighting! Keep fighting! We must live to tell the story!” It took me fifty years to be ready to tell the story.

During the last few days in camp, we could feel the end of the war coming. It seemed close, but I couldn’t even imagine what it would look or feel like. Rotting bodies were everywhere; fewer and fewer Nazis appeared. Where were they hiding? It was unbelievable when one morning Dora came into the bunk running and shouting, “We are free! We are free! Come, let’s meet our liberators.” I was dragged down from my bunk and pulled outside closer to the gate. And there they were, near a beautiful tank. I raised my arms and then dropped down to the ground and fainted. Dora was always near me and always tried to help, but she was also weak since she had typhus as well. Luckily, we were liberated in time to survive.

Babey Widutschinsky Trepman in Bergen-Belsen after the war.

Ida Dimant after the war. Lodz, 1946.

Fela Zylberstajn Grachnik and her husband, Moniek (Moishe), with their daughter Mirale (Myra). Schwandorf Displaced Persons camp, Bavaria, Germany, circa 1947.

Suzanne Katz Reich after the war, date unknown.

Catherine Matyas, age twenty, in her passport photo. Paris, 1948.

Fela Yoskovitz-Ross in Hanover, circa 1946–1948.

Rebekah (Relli) Schmerler-Katz and her mother, Rose, in Liberec, Czechoslovakia, while they were waiting to get their papers to come to Canada. Late 1946.

Passing

During the height of the Holocaust being identified as a Jew was pretty much a death sentence. To survive, many woman had to hide in plain sight, to pass as non-Jews through a variety of techniques at deception.

If they had blonde hair, blue or green or grey eyes, spoke Polish or German without a Yiddish accent, and if they were clever and very, very lucky, they had a chance.

Women who passed lived in a state of continuous terror; they risked their lives merely by leaving their apartment. Yet, they had to leave to survive. They were not hidden Jews; they were Jews who tried to look as if they led normal lives while hiding a deadly secret.

Learn more about how these women "passed" to survive and explore the complex racial and ethnic identity politics of the time.

FEATURING THE VOICES OF


Helen Mahut

Dyna Perelmuter

Barbara Kuper

Irene Zoberman

Read an excerpt from Passing

Passing

An excerpt from Helen Mahut's memoir:

By July 1941, all the remaining Red Army soldiers had been captured and were put into the Citadel, locked up and left to die of thirst and hunger. Their cries were heard for a very long time. Four months later, the Jewish quarter began to be transformed into a ghetto. My Polish friends, Helena and Zdzisław Dziedziński, forbade me to put on a yellow armband and join the other Jews in the quarter. They hid me in their apartment and locked me up in my room when they had to go out. A former nurse who worked with Arthur eventually gave me all her documents (birth and christening certificates, her nursing certificate and other papers that were impossible to buy even for a fortune) because, “not having been able to help the Doctor, [she] wanted to help [me].” All I had to do was leave Lwów and move to Warsaw, which was part of a different jurisdiction (General Government), and she would declare the loss of her papers later on. Her name was Helena Czechowicz - I still bear her given name. 

[...]

I rented a room with Mme. Adwentowicz, the estranged wife of a famous Polish theatre actor who was in jail because he had helped his Jewish mistress (also a known actress) to escape to Switzerland. My landlady was bitter, very religious and practicing, and had one other lodger, a young woman named Danuta, whom I tried to avoid because her uncle, who frequently visited, struck me as a rabid antisemite. Because this milieu belonged to the intelligentsia, nobody believed that I was a registered nurse, and I was frequently teased by references in French and English to literary works and authors. At the same time, with the exception of my landlady, all were agnostic, and I didn’t have to pretend to be a practicing Catholic like Danuta, who went to church regularly and who surrounded herself with holy pictures. 

[...] 

One evening, when I came home just before curfew (7:00 p.m. in the winter months), my landlady tearfully informed me that the Gestapo had come to arrest Danuta and her uncle, who were denounced for being Jews. She begged me to move out because the apartment might be under observation and, as a young woman not working for the Germans, I could be taken to a labour camp. 

[...] 

On December 4, Saint Barbara’s day, I put a coat on over my nightgown and crossed the inner yard to visit a woman whose husband trained young men and women in the forest surrounding Warsaw; sometimes, he brought back some meat and cheese and she would signal that she could sell some to us. With me were two elderly ladies. Within minutes of my arrival, armed SS soldiers erupted into the apartment, began to beat the man to a pulp and proceeded to arrest the rest of us. In my case, a man in a civilian leather coat and boots ordered one of the SS men to accompany me to my apartment so that I could get dressed. The man dressed like a civilian also came with us. On my desk, he saw Winnie-the-Pooh, my only available text to teach my students, and a Polish-English dictionary. The two men were careful to turn their backs to me while I changed. We were put into a Black Maria with sirens; our destination was the Gestapo headquarters on political affairs. On the way, they finished off the young man, and he died. The two ladies were set free after a brief interrogation.

That night, my interrogations began. I faced a table at which sat about six or seven SS and Gestapo men, and one uniformed woman. I sat on a chair at arm’s length from them. Whenever I fell asleep, I would be awakened by a knock on the head. One meal each day (watery soup) and one visit to the bathroom. They did not believe me that I went to the apartment merely to buy some food. Why did I have an English-Polish dictionary? What were my ties to the Underground? The man in whose house I was arrested? One day, one of them took me up to the roof of the building (six or seven storeys) and pushed my head over the railing; I recoiled, quite assured that this was the end. I was taken back inside. The next day he assured the others that I could not have been parachuted down because I looked green when he forced me to look down from the roof.

The uniformed woman looked at me with hatred, and I was sure that she began to suspect that I was Jewish. But this was the political branch of the Gestapo, and they were mildly irritated by her interruptions. Finally, one of them sighed and asked me to kneel down and pray, to which I reminded him that I had gone to a French high school where, since the French Revolution, there was a separation of state and church and, besides, even if I knew how to pray, surely this was not the right place for it. To which, with a smirk in the woman’s direction, he put his thumb under his brown collar and informed me that he, too, used to be Catholic.

The woman was not popular, but to satisfy her they invited two uniformed doctors in, and I was told to undress down to my underwear while they proceeded to take measurements: forehead, neck, wrists, ankles, legs, waist, chest. Verdict: not only was I Aryan but some of my body dimensions were Nordic. The tone changed and I was spoken to more politely (Sie instead of du). Apologies were made for any inconvenience, and I was released into the care of the civilian, who had attended all the hearings without ever saying a word. He accompanied me to the guardroom where I retrieved my coat and my purse (with all my documents that looked as if they had been checked - Helena Czechowicz saved my life again).

Coming down the white marble staircase the man said to me, “And yet, you are Jewish, aren’t you?’ - to which I said, “Yes.” He grabbed my arm and said that he was glad I had not lied to him because “nobody lies to Wisniewski.” Had I lied, he would have shot me right there “like a dog.” He knew that I would want to change my address, but he advised me with a smile to remain in the same apartment “because those idiots upstairs can always guarantee that you are Aryan.” I left and, on my way home, I promised myself that should I survive the war, which was doubtful, I would immediately insure my legs.

[...] 

Three situations come to mind that illustrate some of the aspects of trying to survive in occupied Poland... 

Situation 1: One day a seventeen-year-old pupil arrived for her lesson in a huff and wondered what to do about her mother. The student, Magda, had seen one of her schoolmates from before 1939, a Jew, who wore no yellow star and who, besides, was out of the ghetto. Magda got off the streetcar and called the passing Gestapo, who got the girl and shot her right there. When Magda went home to tell her mother about it, the mother had a hysterical fit. “How could you have that girl shot?” Magda was shocked and wondered what to do about her mother who, she understood, was a Jew lover. By that time, I had learned not to blush or to show any outward signs of horror, yet somehow I had to respond to this and still be able to live with myself later. All I said was that her mother was right. Did Magda not know that, in 1942, the Polish government-in-exile in London had broadcast a message from General Sikorski: “Any Pole doing harm or denouncing Polish citizens of Jewish faith will be considered a collaborator with the enemy”? Therefore, her mother’s reaction was not surprising. Ah, this was an acceptable explanation, and we began reading Winnie-the-Pooh. 

Situation 2: One day, I was accosted by a very furtive young man, the son of the concierge in the pre-war apartment with whom I played as a child. “Your father was a Jew, and that makes you a half-Jew [he was wrong, according to the Nuremberg laws, a half Jew was still a Jew], so quickly give me your watch and I’ll go away.” I did, so did he, and that emphasized the importance of childhood friendships. After all, he did not betray me to Polish police or to the Germans. 

Situation 3: On the other hand, a chance meeting, also in the street, with the janitor of my lycée (secondary school), Français de Varsovie, gave me necessary strength. He recognized me, hugged me and took me home with him to meet his family. He cried from joy that I had survived the bombardments. They fed me, they worried about me, but, when I left, I decided not to continue our meetings for they could prove to be dangerous in the long run to both them and me.

Dyna Perelmuter's Kennkarte document issued in the name of Zofia Suska. Radom district, 1943.

Helen Mahut passing under the name of Helena Czechowicz. Warsaw, 1942.

Barbara Kuper, 1948.

Irene Zoberman's post-war document with the photo that was on her false identity documents during the war. 1948.

Soviet Union

Before the Final Solution and its organized system of deportations and death camps, the mass killing of Jews was being carried out by the Einsatzgruppen and local collaborators in Eastern Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia. These mass killings and pogroms followed the German army as it conquered Soviet-occupied territory and marched towards Moscow.

As this genocidal force spread eastward, thousands of Jews tried to escape to the Soviet Union to find a safe haven. These refugees faced a new set of problems when they arrived in the Soviet Union. Many of these Jewish refugees were considered dangerous illegal aliens and were sent to gulags in far flung regions.

FEATURING THE VOICES OF


Mina Wolkowicz

Svetlana Kogan-Rabinovich

Gitlia Popovsky

Koine Schachter Rogel

Read an excerpt from Soviet Union

Soviet Union

An excerpt from Svetlana Kogan-Rabinovich's memoir:

I was thirteen. Bombings started on the very first night. As the Germans bombed the nearby Vapniarka station, Father was called into the printing office. When he was leaving, he told me not to go out of the house and, in case anything happened, to remember everything my parents had taught me. The windows were shaking from exploding shells. I was afraid. I lay face down under the big dining table and cried all night. 

In the morning, Father came back. Following orders, we covered the windows with strips of paper, so that pieces of glass wouldn’t fly in all directions if the windows shattered. The Red Army was retreating. Before the Germans’ arrival, locals started looting shops and Jewish homes. They hauled things and food away in sacks. We were afraid to leave the house. Roads were crowded with refugees. Few people manage to evacuate in time; we had believed the propaganda that said the war would only last a month or two. Nobody among us thought that the Germans would reach us so fast, and we didn’t know what they were capable of. Many could not abandon their sick elders. We tried to send a pregnant relative out of the city, but the trains were crammed. People were suffocating from the overcrowding. So she came back home. We later learned that airplanes bombed the refugee train. 

Tulchin had no railroad. We, along with many other people, evacuated on horse-drawn carts, with the elderly and women with children walking behind us, through Gaisin, about fifty kilometres away, toward the city of Uman. Hasidic Jews were walking behind to pray on the grave of the Breslov Rebbe (Rabbi Nachman of Bratislava). During the bombings, people would scatter out into the forest. The horses were exhausted and hungry - there was no time to let them graze, and peasants didn’t give them fodder.

The Germans, with their cars and motorcycles, moved very quickly. After we arrived in Gaisin, we soon heard German speech. Hasidic Jews prayed in Grandfather’s house as a vegetable processing plant was being bombed nearby. The frontline was moving closer to Gaisin. Fighting broke out and lasted forty-eight hours. The Germans forced both the locals and refugees to clean the roads and to drag horse carcasses into the trenches that our retreating army had dug. Many who worked on clearing the roads never returned home. Those who dragged horse carcasses into the ditches were forced to climb inside, where they were shot and covered with soil. Across from the printing shop, the Germans hanged the shoemaker Yavorsky on an electric pole. Everyone regretted not having evacuated from the city. 

We tried to stay together. One day, when I walked outside with a kettle to get some water from the river, a German caught me and sent me to work. I washed motorcycle wheels and was ordered to show up to work the next day. My parents had been worried, thinking I was no longer alive. In the evening, they decided to hide me in Grandfather’s attic. The punishment for failing to show up at work was being shot. When the Germans arrived to our house, our hunchbacked neighbour, Shlima, got frightened and pointed out where I was hiding. A German dragged me from the attic by my braid. Mother ran after him and begged him to take her to work instead of me, but the German drove her away. He beat me with a ramrod. Everyone who hadn’t come out to work was brought to the trenches by the bathhouse to be shot. Armed Germans and Ukrainian Polizei, the auxiliary police, were already standing there. I knew one of them; he used to work as a street sweeper. They made us stand in a row before the trenches. As we were waiting for the shot, we suddenly saw a tall, skinny red-haired German running toward us without his field tunic, waving his arm. He asked if anyone knew how to mend socks. Along with seven other people, I raised my hand. We were taken away. The others were shot. 

We were taken to a bathhouse that my grandfather had built during the Civil War to combat the typhus epidemic. We washed the soldiers’ wool socks. We were ordered to show up again the next day. For several days, we sorted, washed and mended socks. Most of those who mended the socks eventually died later.

Soon, an order was posted: “Everyone must remain in the location of their residences and registrations. Those who ran away from home are communists.” My brother, Peysakh, who turned eighteen when the war began, was in Tulchin when he was drafted into the army. Mother was with him. Two weeks after the beginning of the war, she walked to Gaisin. My brother, like the majority of his peers born in 1922, died on the front lines. 

In September, a ghetto for Jews was created in Tulchin, and we were ordered to move there. With the Hasidic Jews, we went from Gaisin to Tulchin through Ladyzhin. We had to cross the Bug River in a ferry. The ferry was on our side of the river and there was no one on it, so we pulled up the rope ourselves. The air was filled with the smell of burned flesh and hair. Before we left, we walked up to the house of our relative Shlema Morgulis, which stood by the river. The blinds were drawn, but he heard us speaking in Yiddish and came down from the attic. He told us that the Germans had burned down houses in the township, that elderly Jews were dragged by their beards and thrown into the fire alive. His sister, Sara Goihman, came with us to Tulchin. A few days later, she went to the old market and found out that Shlema, not wanting to surrender to the Germans alive, had hanged himself in his attic. Like other young people, his daughters were rounded up to dig holes with spades, and, in those holes, they were buried alive. For several days, the ground was moving over the bodies of suffocating people. One of Morgulis’s daughters was away in Odessa at the time and so she survived.

Svetlana Kogan-Rabinovich after the war. Kharkov, 1946.

Mina Wolkowicz and her husband, Pinchas, with their son, Henry. Lodz, 1948.

Gitlia Popovsky at approximately eighteen years old. Kiev, circa 1940.

Koine Schachter Rogel before the war. Romania, date unknown.

About the Editor

Myrna Goldenberg is the co-editor of Different Horrors, Same Hell: Gender and the Holocaust (2013) and Experience and Expression: Women, the Nazis, and the Holocaust (2003), as well as a number of other publications. A professor emerita of Montgomery College, Maryland, Goldenberg’s research focuses on gender and the Holocaust and on teaching the Holocaust in the university and college classroom


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