Frida Weller (neé Luft) was born in the small town of Nowy Korczyn (Nayshtut or Neustadt in Yiddish), Poland, in 1919. A few months before World War II started, she moved to Lodz and worked there as a waitress.
Shortly after the outbreak of war, Frida got married, and she and her husband were forced to move into the Lodz ghetto. There, Frida got work in the vegetable market. In August 1944, the ghetto was liquidated. Frida’s husband was killed, and she was deported to Auschwitz, where she was held for a week before being sent to do forced labour in a Krupp factory at the Berlin-Neukölln camp, a subcamp of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. After a short time at Neukölln, Frida was sent to Ravensbrück, where she was evacuated by the Swedish Red Cross in April 1945 and taken to Denmark and then Sweden. Frida stayed in Sweden for about two years and then made her way to British Mandate Palestine but was detained in Cyprus, where she met her husband, Aaron Weller. They stayed in Cyprus until 1948, when Israel was declared a state, and then settled near Haifa. Frida and her husband immigrated to Canada in 1953 and settled in Toronto, where they had two children. Frida Weller passed away in 2014.
I have an article from the Canadian Jewish News featuring a picture of a water carrier carrying two pails of water that hang from a pole across his shoulders, all the way from the river. That is exactly what I used to do. I would schlep water home from the river outside of town, which was far! I couldn’t stand having the pole across my shoulders, but this is how many of us made a living, a few groschen, even in the winter.
There were some wells in our neighbourhood, and we used the water from our neighbours’ well for laundry, cleaning and washing, or for a bath. My mother did the washing in a wooden tub, or balia. We heated warm water for washing our clothes on the stove. Most of the year, we would hang the laundry in the attic. In the summer, we would hang it on a fence on the property of some non-Jewish neighbours who were kind to Jews and lived on a large piece of land.
As we grew up, there was not enough room for all of us in our small room. My sister slept with my mother, my brother slept with my father, and I had to sleep in the crib until I was seven or eight because there was no room for me anywhere else. Maybe that’s why I didn’t grow, because my feet were reaching the end of the bed. That’s just how it was where we were brought up. I lived in a very primitive place, such a godforsaken place! That place made me who I am to my very core and still stays with me today.
My father was a religious man, a man who believed in God. He wouldn’t live any other way. He was comfortable with what he had and who he was, and he never complained. He got up every morning and looked outside to see if the sun was up so that he could put on his tefillin (phylacteries) and start his prayers. After he said his prayers, he placed his burlap sack over his shoulder and went out. If there was bread, he took it with him; if there was nothing, he just left. He would go out to the villages to buy a chicken, a goose or some feathers so that he could sell them somewhere else and make some money. One day, my father brought home a calf and sold it to the shtetl shochet (ritual slaughterer) and butcher. The butcher killed it and cut up the meat to sell. When this happened, it was like the Moshiach (Messiah) had come, like paradise! We could get something to eat from the butcher, or we could use this meat to trade for something else.
My father took the sack and went out five days a week, winter and summer, year after year. In the winter, even when it was freezing or snowing, he never stayed home because it was necessary to work. Whenever he managed to buy and sell, there would be some money so that we could buy a loaf of bread or something else that we needed. He would come home when it was very dark out. In the wintertime, he wore something to cover his head. When he would come home, with icicles hanging from his beard, he couldn’t even take off his boots. That’s how my father made a living, if you can call it that.
Sometimes my father brought home a goose, which my mother would then take to the butcher. It would be cut into pieces, and my mother would go around and sell it. We couldn’t have the whole goose to ourselves because we needed to sell some and make money for a little bit of bread. On Friday, to get ready for Shabbos (the Sabbath), my mother would take me shopping with her. She would have some money in her pocket to buy a bit of flour or sugar to make something for Shabbos. Often, we made a cholent (a beef stew). But people who didn’t have an oven had to take their cholent to the baker on Friday afternoon before Shabbos. On Shabbos, after the prayer service, everyone went to the baker to get their cholent.
In the winter, when it was cold out and we wanted to make some tea or have a fire to warm things on Shabbos, we would have to get someone non-Jewish to light the fire for us. Later in the day, she would come back to check on the fire. Before Shabbos, we would give her some challah; after Shabbos we would pay her ten groschen.
Every Shabbos when we came back from shul (synagogue), my father wanted me to sit down with him so he could teach me a bit of Chumash (Hebrew Bible) or another holy book. I never wanted to study because my friends were outside playing, and I wanted to go play with them, and my father never told me I had to. I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. My father was more than a mensch, a truly decent person. I still go to shul every Shabbos, and every word of the prayers that I utter reminds me of my father.
My mother did what she could to earn some money. There was a tartak (sawmill) on the outskirts of the town, far from where we lived, where people brought wood. Many people, including my mother, would go there to collect the waste, the bits of wood that had fallen aside, and bundle them and carry them home on their backs to use for many things: to light the stove, to cook or to heat water. Sometimes, my mother would collect these bits of waste and would earn five złoty for it.
As the Lodz ghetto was enclosed, all the Jews had to go live there. Jews weren’t allowed to stay outside the ghetto. Many people who had relatives living in other cities and towns also moved to the ghetto. It didn’t matter that there was no room. Some Germans told us that if anyone had relatives elsewhere, they should leave right away, before bad things happened. They knew that the Nazis were going to gather the rest of the Jews living there and kill them all.
There was a man in the Lodz ghetto, Henryk Ross, who took it upon himself to take thousands of photos. When the ghetto was liquidated, he couldn’t take them with him. Whatever you had, you had to throw away or it was taken away from you. Yet, somehow, these photos were hidden, and now the Art Gallery of Ontario has the approximately three thousand remaining negatives. Can you imagine? These pictures are very important.
I remember one rainy, cold day in the fall when I was out walking in the ghetto. I don’t remember where exactly, but the scene is still very clear to me. As I was walking, I saw at a distance ahead of me, some Jewish men, and also Germans. There was waste on the streets from the horses, and as those Jewish men were walking, the Germans hit them and then forced them to pick up the horses’ waste and put it in their pockets. This was the first thing I saw that had a strong effect on me.
In the ghetto, I worked in the warzywa platz (vegetable market), a place where vegetables from the farmers were distributed. These vegetables were not for private use; they were for the people who worked in the kitchens at German establishments. When the farmers brought in the vegetables and deposited them in the warzywa platz, people like me had little wagons in which we transported the vegetables to the soup kitchens.
This food was not for our own use, but I was lucky to work there because I had access to a potato or carrot here or there, or a bit of whatever was available. At night when we left to go home, we were searched in case we had anything in our pockets, and we could be punished if we did. But during the day, in secret, we ate whatever we could. We were always hungry.
After work, I would go to the back of the kitchen to collect peels from the waste, and I would take them home, wash them and make a meal out of them. That’s what sustained us. We were lucky; thousands of people had no access to food. For four years, we lived off a loaf of bread that was supposed to last a whole week. Sometimes there was something else, like a piece of horse meat from a horse that had died for some reason.
You had to sign up to get one of these jobs. There were advertisements put out, asking if you were willing to work. Of course, you had to work to sustain yourself. Everybody wanted this job I had, but not everybody could get it. It was for young people who had the strength to drag a wagon full of vegetables, which wasn’t easy, especially in the winter, when it was freezing.
My husband Laibish and I were in the ghetto from 1940 until the liquidation in the summer of 1944. Some people were taken away long before we were. There were so many people deported before 1944. They were all killed in the gas chambers.
Unfortunately, my husband didn’t make it after the liquidation. Some people survived and some didn’t, and he was one who didn’t. He was injured when we were on the way to Auschwitz. There was no help, no doctors who would think of helping. If someone broke an arm, hand or a leg, that was the end of it. This is how it ended for my husband — in the departure from the ghetto.
There were chimneys bulging, belching, and we asked the German women supervising us, ‘What are they doing there? What is with all these chimneys?’ They replied, ‘We are baking bread.’
When we were deported from the ghetto, we were rows and rows of people walking, carrying whatever we could, until we came to a place where they kept and sorted the prisoners. If we were lucky, like my group was, when we got to the outskirts of Lodz, we were put on a train. We were the last transport. We didn’t have to keep walking. But so many people were taken from the ghetto prior to us. They had to walk for days and nights, for miles and miles, and so many collapsed because they couldn’t take it anymore.
When we reached our destination, Auschwitz, the Germans came up onto the train and threw us out. This was the end for us.
There were a lot of people around. We were taken in groups, and we walked past many people who were there before we arrived. They looked wretched, and we turned to each other and said, “Look at those people behind the bars. They looked crazed; they are not normal.” They were shouting at us that if we had anything, we should throw it over the fence because they were going to take it from us anyway. I mean, who would believe this? We didn’t know what awaited us, even as we got closer to the crematoria, where bodies were being burned.
There were chimneys bulging, belching, and we asked the German women supervising us, “What are they doing there? What is with all these chimneys?” They replied, “We are baking bread.”
I had to disrobe completely; even the clothes on our backs were taken away. We were taken into a building where they shaved us, and they gave us a piece of cloth to cover our bodies. Just one piece. Whether it was pants or a top or a dress, whatever we could pick up, it was ours to hold on to. But we were the lucky ones; we were saved. The ones who had arrived before us, who knew what happened to them?
We were only in Auschwitz for one week. My friend Sally Koffman who lives here in Toronto can attest to that. Then we were sent by train to the outskirts of Berlin, a place called Neukölln, which was also known as Braunauerstrasse. It must have been the fall of 1944 when I arrived there. The weather was mild, and there wasn’t any snow yet.
There, a man took us into the barracks. From there, prisoners went to work at the Krupp factory, where they were making things for the German war effort. The Americans were trying to destroy places like this, to try to prevent them from producing ammunition. Day and night, we were bombarded. When we were called for the Appell and had to go outside the barracks to be counted, we ran out to the yards where the old factories were, and we dug ditches to lie in. People were saying that during World War I, you had to dig a hole to lie in to be safe from the bullets. Here, I also had to dig a ditch — like a grave. Day and night, we were bombarded and had to go out into those ditches, apparently to be saved. Well, we were saved.
There were a few barracks housing a few hundred people. Every morning, each group was woken up and had to go outside to be counted. We had to be counted twice a day, in the morning before we went to the factories to work, and in the evening when we were brought back. I don’t know what they were so concerned about — whether we were there or if we had disappeared or if someone had died. But there was always an Appell.
One good part to all of this was that we had a nice Oberscharführer. This was someone who was assigned to be in charge of a group of people, usually an ex-soldier who may have been wounded. These people were assigned to oversee us, to see that people were fed and that people worked when they were supposed to. Our lot was lucky; we got an Oberscharführer who was a nice, kind and considerate man. He supplied us with food, enough bread to take to the factories for the day, and when we came back, there was a big kettle of soup. Sometimes, on Sunday, we’d even get a piece of meat, which was very unusual. We even got toothbrushes! As I said, we were lucky.
Something must have happened to the people who worked there before because the factory needed workers suddenly. Maybe the previous inmates had been taken to other places and killed and they needed us to replace them.
We were assigned to work according to our size; smaller people did tile inspection. That’s where I was sent, to check small tiles and see if they were cut perfectly. Larger people were assigned to other jobs, some involving machines. When we would come back to the barracks, we would get together and talk about the kinds of work we did. Some people got burned, some got their hands cut off, some were injured badly. If this happened, they were taken away immediately because they were of no use. People were inexperienced with this kind of work and with the machinery they had to operate and were often injured. We never knew what happened or where they went after they were injured. No one told us. We only knew that we didn’t see them ever again. And that’s the way it was.