The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program

"I had left this town as an eleven-year-old boy and returned six long years later as a broken teenager, feeling like an old man."

Nate Leipciger, after surviving ghettos, Auschwitz, death marches and typhus, finally reaches his hometown, with hopes of finding his mother and sister. 

It was at this point that he faced what all survivors encountered after surviving the Holocaust: that a whole world had been destroyed.

Nate, September 1945. Poland.

I stood at the gate of [my grandmother's] apartment building for a long time, unable to bring myself to enter. I was afraid of the truth. An invisible force stopped me from going through the gate into the yard.

...Everything was the same. I saw my grandfather’s glazer’s workshop, the tall wall and the prison building behind it....Garbage cans stood exactly how they had always stood in the corner near the gate.

Next to the gate was a photography store that used to throw out old glass photographic negatives. We would pick up used rolls of celluloid film and make stink bombs. I looked into the window, which once held pictures of familiar faces; now it displayed images of people I didn’t know...

On the street, people were walking without concern, rushing along to their chosen destinations as if nothing horrible had happened. The street looked the same. The apartment buildings looked the same. Everything was exactly how it always was, except for one striking difference: The synagogue across the street, where my entire family prayed on Shabbat and holidays, was gone. In its place was an empty lot.

Elka (née Hochman) Percik, Nate’s maternal grandmother. Photo obtained from a gentile neighbour after the war.

Looking at the empty lot gave me a jab in my ribs. The world of my childhood had vanished, as had its people. Sweet memories entered my mind. I remembered the exciting moments of Simchat Torah, marching around the synagogue with decorated flags. I remembered the high holidays when my parents spent most of the day in synagogue, my friends and me running around the yard playing games and chasing each other. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I loved visiting my mother in the women’s section in the balcony, when she would let me smell the sweet fragrance of orange and cloves that she used to ease her fasting.

I had left this town as an eleven-year-old boy and returned six long years later as a broken teenager, feeling like an old man. How was this possible? In 1939, my future was bright and hopeful; I looked forward to finishing school and getting a trade. My whole life had been ahead of me.

At this moment, it seemed that all was lost. I had no education, nowhere to go; now I was left praying to God that my mother and sister were alive.

I was still standing at the gate, biting my nails in deep thought. I must have been standing there for over an hour, delaying the inevitable. Whoever survived should have left word by now, two-and-a-half months after the war. I could no longer delay finding out the truth. I had the feeling that the next moments could destroy my hopes. I gathered up my courage, walked across the cobblestone yard to my grandmother’s staircase, and walked up to the second floor. I knocked on the door of the neighbour whose name I did not recall. After a long while, I heard some movement inside; the door opened as far as the chain allowed and a voice asked, “Who is it?” I answered, “Elka’s grandson.” I heard a cry and the chain being removed, and the door was opened. A corpulent older woman threw her arms around me and we both sobbed. We finally settled down and she told me that my mother’s sisters, Ruzia and Zosia, had come to see her soon after the Nazis left Poland. They hadn’t left a forwarding address. They themselves did not know where they would find lodging; she thought that they had gone to Lodz, where my aunt Zosia lived before the war.

Nate’s mother, Faigel Leja (Leah), 1938. Nate received this photo from his grandmother’s housekeeper, Stasia, after the war.

I was at a loss. What to do next? Where to find a place to sleep? It did not even occur to me to ask if I could stay the night with her, and she did not offer. I thought about Krysia, my sister’s friend, and asked if she still lived across the yard. She nodded. I left the apartment, still hopeful that my mother and sister would come back. They could be sick or stuck somewhere in Germany or some other country. Travel was difficult and I convinced myself that this was the case. I could not fathom nor accept that they were not alive. I thought it was only a matter of time before they would come back.

Tears were streaming down my cheeks as I walked across the yard to Krysia’s apartment. She was both surprised and happy to see me. “Thank God you survived,” she said. By this time, most people knew what had happened to the Jews. She asked about Linka and when I told her that I had no information, for the first time it occurred to me that she might not be alive. I pushed the thought out of my mind....It was only a few months since the end of the war, and things were still in flux. Krysia and her mother lived alone now in a sparsely furnished apartment; her mother had sold everything to buy food during the war. She walked over to her dresser and came back with two photographs of my sister from the ghetto. The pictures were dated 1942. In 1942, we were in the open ghetto of Sosnowiec...We had lost everything, and to recover a photograph of a family member was especially poignant. They were the first photographs in my possession. The pictures brought back a flood of memories and tears, but I thought them to be a good omen....

I was driven by a desire to get away from the past. The irony is that the more I tried, the less I succeeded.
A photo of Nate’s sister, Linka, that was given to him after the war by Linka’s friend, Krysia. The inscription on the back of the photo reads, “To my dear Krysia, I present this photo as a souvenir of our happy time together.” Sosnowiec, June 21, 1942.

It was late afternoon and I still didn’t know where I would spend the night. I must have been in a daze, for I don’t remember how I found my way to the Registration Centre. There, I found the names and addresses of cousins Cesia Leipciger, Roma and Genia Nadelberg and uncle Israel (Kurt) Nadelberg. My aunts’ names were not there. I was not surprised that my aunts were still concealing their identity. Many people were afraid to register, especially with the Jewish community organizations, because of latent antisemitism.

I recognized the address as my Uncle Tobias’s store, and ran through the familiar streets up a long stairway to the part of the city known as Hajduchy, past the silent steel mill and over the bridge overlooking the smelter yard where I used to spend hours watching the crane smash hot glowing slack with a huge ball. Now, I had no interest in it and rushed past.

I reached the apartment and rang the doorbell. My uncle opened the door; I knew him instantly but he did not recognize me. The last time he saw me, I was practically a little boy. Roma came to the door and let out a shriek. “Natek, Natek, kochany [dear]!” Cesia and Genia came running and we all embraced and cried and laughed at the same time. After a staccato of questions that I could not answer, they took me into the next room, the table set for dinner. A welcome sight for my eyes, as I had totally forgotten about food.

Nate’s father, Jack (front, left), with his siblings Tobias (back, left), Mirla (back, right) and Leon (front, right). Chorzów, circa 1919.

We spoke for hours on end and I found out that this was all that remained from my father’s large family. From them, I found out that my father’s parents, four sisters and two brothers, together with their spouses and nine children, had not come back. Most were shipped away to death camps during the final deportation from the Częstochowa ghetto in the fall of 1942. They did not know which one. Cesia, Roma, Genia and Uncle Kurt had been sent to a forced labour camp known as HASAG in Skarżysko-Kamienna. Uncle Tobias Leipciger had been sent to Auschwitz and did not return. Cesia’s father, Leon Leipciger, had died on a death march in the last days before liberation.