Minny Peters

Peters thumb

Born: Warsaw, Poland, 1923

Wartime experience: Ghetto and camps

Writing partner: Ruth Miller

Minny Peters was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1923. She and her family spent their summers near Warsaw, working in their fruit market, and the rest of the year in Lodz, where her mother had grown up.

After the German occupation of Poland in 1939, Minny worked in factories in Lodz for the Germans until her family was forced into the closed ghetto at the beginning of May 1940. She and her family lived in the Lodz ghetto until it was liquidated in August 1944. They were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Minny and her mother managed to stay together. Her father and her youngest brother were murdered. Four weeks after their arrival, Minny and her mother were sent to the Stutthof concentration camp. In late January 1945, when the camp was evacuated, they were sent on a death march to a camp near Lauenburg (Lębork), Poland. They were liberated by the Soviet army in March 1945. Minny and her mother retuned to Lodz after the war, where they reunited with Minny’s surviving brother. Minny married Isaac in 1946, and they soon left Poland with her family, arriving in the Lampertheim displaced persons camp in Germany, where her daughter was born in 1947. Minny and her family lived briefly near Paris, France, before arriving in Canada in 1950, settling in Toronto, where her son was born. Minny worked in garment factories, was a member of the Pioneer Women and the Histadrut labour organizations, and volunteered at Mount Sinai Hospital. Minny Peters passed away in 2018.

To the Ghetto

I was born in 1923. My father was David Salve, and my mother’s maiden name was Malca Gelberg. I had two younger brothers; I was two years older than my brother Motek and four years older than my brother Chaim Lazer. My mother had been born in Lodz, and my father in Warsaw. They met when they were young. When my mother was fourteen or fifteen years old, she loved the theatre and went so often that one time the director of the theatre even said to her, “Malca, why don’t you bring your bed and sleep here? Why do you have to go back and forth?” My father was talented in woodworking. He came from Warsaw to Lodz to work, making bimahs, raised platforms, for the theatre. Whenever my mother came to the theatre, he was there working. So they met there, and after a few years they got married. My mother was seventeen, and my father was two years older. Since my mother was from Lodz, they lived there.

When I was growing up, my mother was a seamstress, and my father worked in carpentry. My family also had a business selling fruit and vegetables in the suburbs of Warsaw, on the train line to the town of Otwock. In the spring and summer, my father and my brother Motek went to buy fruit every day at the market in the suburbs of Warsaw, not far from Józefów. We had a home not far from the market. They would take me out of school every spring to help, sometimes even before school ended, and I would fail the year! But I always made it up.

We would take the bus to Józefów, about fifteen kilometres southeast of Warsaw, to sell our produce. There were beautiful hotels there, and professional people from Warsaw stayed in these hotels. I saw them in their beautiful clothes and admired them. Some of these people came to buy produce and to meet us, but mostly it was the hotels who bought our fruit and vegetables. Otwock was a spa town with a sanatorium for lung disease, so people would visit there for their health. Lots of Hasidic Jews also lived in Otwock.

By September we would leave the suburbs of Warsaw and go back to live in Lodz. This cycle went on for years, but when the war broke out and the Germans came, we tried to get back to Lodz from the suburbs on the buses, but we were taken off the bus and couldn’t get back to Lodz. When another bus came, the driver had rachmones, pity, on us and let us on the bus. We were so happy to get back to Lodz. There was no ghetto at the time, but when there was, we couldn’t go to Józefów anymore.

After the war started and the Germans had invaded Poland, we didn’t know what was going to happen. The Germans established many factories in Lodz. They had factories for making boots for the soldiers, brassieres, shoes, uniforms and other things.

At first, I worked in a factory where we made straw shoes to go over the soldiers’ boots. We would braid the straw to make it strong. My brother Motek worked there too. It was at Marcina 100 in Lodz. I worked there for a short time, and then I worked in a special factory in the same area where we made the fancy tops of shoes from pure leather. The Germans chose sixteen young women, who were not bad-looking, and we worked at sewing machines in two rows of eight. We worked with two needles, the way they sew the seams of jeans. Downstairs they made boots for German soldiers. Everything that we made was for Germans; our fancy shoes were for German women. We produced beautiful work. The German officers came to check how we were working. We were very lucky in this factory because the Jewish guy who ran it, Bernstein, was nice to us and treated us well. He was from Poznań and had a wife and a family. He had a garden where he planted all kinds of food and he said to us, “You can go and pick up something.” This was very important for us; we could take what we needed — celery, carrots, potatoes. In other factories, the workers didn’t have it so good.

On May 1, 1940, we were sent to live in the ghetto. Before that, we had lived in a simple house, with aunts and uncles nearby. Germans and Jews had lived together, and there were stores and businesses. Later, German families took over our house. By this time, my father was no longer building bimahs. His job was putting aluminum strips around the boxes of Ceylon tea to close the ends. But he didn’t work in the ghetto. While in the ghetto, my brother Chaim Lazer delivered fertilizer. They gave him a wagon with two wheels, and his job was to collect night soil from the toilets and deliver fertilizer for gardens. My mother sewed in a factory.

Over the years we lived in the ghetto, the Germans would often come looking for children and elderly people to deport. They knew people were hiding and would order a Sperre, confinement, and round people up for deportation. I hid my parents twice. We had a commode with a closet behind it, and it was so well disguised that no one knew it was there. While my parents were in the closet, the Nazis were downstairs rounding up the elderly and the children in trucks. We had one room and a little kitchen. The Nazis came into the room and checked under the bed and all over, but they didn’t realize the commode was in front of a closet.

There was a lot of fear. We thought that any minute they would come and take us to be killed in a Nazi camp. Every day they made a selection and took people away, who knows where.

There was a Jewish man operating the ghetto, Chaim Rumkowski. He had to do what the Germans told him. But he was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau with us when the Germans liquidated the ghetto in 1944. At that time there were more than six hundred people in hiding, and they stayed in the ghetto.

People died every night. In the morning, piles of dead bodies were put out by the front doors of the barracks to be taken away.

The Last Transport

I was on the last transport out of the Lodz ghetto, and so was Chaim Rumkowski. The German who was in charge of the factories and the ghetto, Hans Biebow, gathered us all outside. He said, “My name is Biebow. I am telling you the truth. We are taking you far away from here to Germany because the Russians will come, and they will kill you because you worked for the Germans.” He told us we would work in Germany. He didn’t say anything about the concentration camp.

We didn’t know where we were going and were worried about what would happen to us. There were a lot of cattle cars, and we could only see German soldiers with rifles, lots of rifles. It was horrible. I had made portions of bread and sugar for my family, and my brothers wanted to eat them while were in the cattle cars, but I said, “No, when we get there, I’m going to give you the bread.”

They put my family of five in the cattle cars. It took a few days to get to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and when we got there, we were told, “Leave everything.” I put my watch under my arm. There were already piles of things taken from others – clothes, shoes, jewellery. When we got out of the cattle cars, it was horrible, so much yelling and screaming. The Nazis separated us right away. I never saw my youngest brother, Chaim Lazer, or my father again. We found out later that they were murdered in the gas chamber. My brother Motek went with Bernstein and some other people from the factory to a subcamp called Gleiwitz. Later Motek told me that Bernstein had said to him, “Motek, give me a piece of bread. I treated your sister nice.”

My mother and I stayed together; it was really amazing we were able to. She was young, and I was about twenty. We slept on bunk beds and wore the striped clothes they gave us. We stayed in Auschwitz for about four weeks. Every morning, at about five or six o’clock, we went outside to be counted. It was freezing and they counted us over and over. There were two women in charge. Even though we didn’t work there, it wasn’t pleasant.

After four weeks they took us to Stutthof, a concentration camp where prisoners did forced labour. We stayed there quite a while. People died every night. In the morning, piles of dead bodies were put out by the front doors of the barracks to be taken away. In Stutthof we lay on the floor, ten people so close to each other, one after the other, in each other’s crotches. We slept like that. We ate like that. The woman in charge who brought the food asked me to help her because I was young and healthy, so I helped her give out the food to everyone, soup, a piece of bread, not much.

Then, in late January we were sent out of Stutthof and forced to walk to an evacuation camp near the Stutthof subcamp Lauenburg. It was cold, and I walked with my mother for eleven days. During the day we walked and at night we slept on straw in barns along the road. We were only given a piece of bread and some water and when my mother bent down to get a little bit of ice or snow, the guard hit her over the shoulder with a gun. She felt very bad and when we arrived; she was crying and in pain. There were barracks with bunk beds. My mother could only lie in the bunk, and I stayed with her.

This camp was in the woods, and we could hear fighting all around us, the sounds of bombs and shelling. It was horrible. In each camp we had troubles. There were women guards here. There was a lineup for soup, and when my mother went out again for soup they hit her over the shoulder again with their guns. She would lie in the bunk bed, moaning and saying, “It hurts, it hurts.”

One night, the guards came in at eleven o’clock and said, “We have to liquidate the camp because the Russians are getting closer, and they are going to kill you. You have to come with us.” It was late in the evening, and my mother was lying in the bunk, crying in pain. They said, “Whoever doesn’t come with us will die here because the Russians will kill you.” Really though, they didn’t want us to live to tell the world what had happened.

My mother wasn’t able to get up because she was hurt, and there were some old people who also weren’t able to go. My mother said to me — and these words I will never forget — “Mindele, save yourself. I can’t go.” I looked at her and I said, “No, I am not going to leave here. Where would I go?” I went back to the bed to lie with my mother.

Some people went and some didn’t. There were a few people, men and women, who couldn’t move, and the Germans brought them from the other barracks to ours. These people gathered together and started praying to God, special Jewish prayers. Then we heard the machine guns outside. It was horrible.

One morning in early March 1945, around four o’clock, a German man with a white flag came from the woods, showing the Soviets that the German soldiers had retreated and that we were free. The Soviets used loudspeakers for their announcements: “Don’t worry, you are free. The Germans are running away. You can go out on the highway and take some things to eat. They left wagons, with no horses, when they ran away. You can take whatever you like.”

There were all kinds of preserved food — beautiful fruit, cans of jam and meat, all kinds of things. I took some jam in my hands, and by the time I got to the room my hands were empty. The jam slipped through my fingers! The next time I took a bucket.

When the Soviets arrived, the German soldiers who had watched us from the watchtowers ran away, leaving behind the straw shoes they had worn over their other boots. They wore those boots in the wintertime, the same kind of boots my brother and I had made in the factory in Lodz.

The Soviets said, “Pick yourself a house. The Germans aren’t there.” So my mother and I stayed in a nice house, not far from the camp. Then the Soviets came to the house, looking for girls. My mother saved me. I was young, not bad-looking, so she put bandages on my hands and between my fingers and told them that I had a disease and was contagious. They were afraid and ran away.

After the Soviets took Berlin and the war ended, my mother said, “We are going back to Lodz to find family.” We didn’t have to pay to take the train there. In Lodz there was a Jewish organization that helped those in need and now helped people find family. Someone said to us, “Go there, maybe you’ll find family.” I remember we stood in a circle and across from me I saw a familiar face. I went up to this person and said, “Motek?” He said yes — it was my brother, and we hugged and cried. The screaming and the yelling and the crying was unbelievable. “You are so lucky you found somebody,” people said. To find a family member at that time...

Everybody was crying.