Many Jewish women survived the Holocaust by assuming false identities and living as non-Jews, a practice referred to as “Passing.” During the height of the Holocaust, being identified as Jewish was likely to be a death sentence. Those who did not have stereotypically Jewish features or Yiddish accents or who were able to procure false papers lived undetected outside of the ghettos and camps. Jews were forced to deny their identity and lie about their names or risk betraying their families to the Nazi authorities. Many women who escaped roundups and were “hiding in plain sight” faced isolation, afraid to trust, yet dependent on others to keep their secret. Throughout the Holocaust, the Nazis made every effort to catch Jews trying to pass, with rewards for informants who turned people in. Some people who were targeted by the Nazis had been living as Christians for more than a generation; despite this, they were not able to pass in the eyes of the Nazis. For those who were found helping Jews, punishment meant imprisonment or even death. A large number of Jews attempting to pass were caught, but those who survived owed their lives to a combination of luck and the kindness of ordinary people who protected them.
Helen Mahut survived by continually moving throughout occupied Poland, assisting the Polish Underground in relaying information to the British, precariously protected by her false identity papers.
This excerpt from the anthology Before All Memory Is Lost shows Helen narrowly escaping arrest and execution.
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.