Rita Tate (née Holdengräber) was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1932. In 1937, she and her mother moved to her mother’s hometown of Lwów, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine), because they feared Germany would invade Austria.
At the start of World War II, Lwów fell under Soviet authority. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Rita and her mother escaped their home to hide with a Catholic family before leaving Lwów for Tarnów. In Tarnów, where they lived for about ten months, they hid with another Christian family, who helped them obtain false identity documents so they could pass as Christian Poles. In October 1942, Rita and her mother moved to Warsaw, where her mother joined the Polish underground and Rita acted as a courier for the underground. In March 1943, her mother was caught with other members of the underground and taken to Pawiak prison before being sent to Auschwitz, where she was killed. Rita was taken to a Catholic orphanage in Warsaw but ran away months later, ending up back in Tarnów and then with an aunt in Lwów. After the war, Rita moved with her aunt to the spa town of Cieplice Śląskie-Zdrój (now Jelenia Góra), where she lived until immigrating to Canada in 1950. She settled in Toronto, where she met and married Murray Tate.
In Vienna, I remember distinctly a privileged way of life. My mother spent her time, even after I was born, at hairdressers, dressmakers, coffee houses, bridge parties and the theatre. That was life in Vienna — beautiful clothes and the opera. We lived in an apartment at the corner of Rotenturmstrasse behind St. Stephen’s Cathedral; it was not enormous — six rooms and a kitchen — but suitable for three people. I remember little things like having breakfast with my parents, the one meal I had with them, because as a child I was not allowed at the dinner table. I had to first learn how to use the various utensils and how to behave. I loved breakfast. Every morning, a little boy would come with an enormous basket of fresh, hot kaiser rolls. There would also be a huge wooden crate of Jaffa oranges from British Mandate Palestine.
I had nannies, some in uniform, some not, who taught me all the proper table manners. Once I became comfortable at the table, I was allowed to go with my mother to the coffee houses, where she played bridge. The waiters would bring enormous stands and platters of pastries to the table, along with, of course, Viennese coffee and Viennese hot chocolate with mounds of whipped cream.
I remember magical times with my father on walks along the streets of old Vienna. My father used to tell me stories, like the one about the great plague in Europe and the very well-known German folk song “O du lieber Augustin” (Oh, you dear Augustin).
In Vienna, I grew up in a totally assimilated family. I heard nothing about being Jewish or about Judaism. I was not aware of anybody’s religion. People were people. We were Austrians, like our friends and the people we had contact with. That is, until Hitler. Then suddenly the Jews were not Austrians — they were Jews and a subhuman race.
Sometime in 1937, my mother and I went to Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine) on one of our yearly visits with my grandmother. During this time, my father, fearing the imminent Nazi invasion of Austria, what would be known as the Anschluss, contacted my mother and said they must get divorced. When my Polish mother married my father, she had become an Austrian citizen. My father had written that if they divorced, she could regain her Polish citizenship and would be able to stay in Poland with me and save ourselves from the Nazis. My mother explained to me that my parents were getting divorced for our safety. My father could not get out of Austria and at the time did not believe that the Germans would invade Poland. My parents did the divorce by mail, and I remember my mother telling me about it. I was very sad and even prepared for the fact that I might never see my father again.
We were staying in one of my grandmother’s houses, opposite Podzamcze, the railway station near Wysoki Zamek. It had an inside courtyard surrounded by houses that were also owned by my grandmother; access to the street was through huge gates for wagons and horses.
In July or August 1939, just before the war started, horse-drawn wagons driven by Polish peasants entered our courtyard absolutely packed with food, including grains of all kinds. My mother had bought all this food, knowing that there would be shortages. People told her she was crazy, but she said, “No, we must have food for everybody.”
Despite the heartbreak and shock she must have felt at being divorced from my father, my mother showed great strength and determination when confronted by the suffering of others.
One day, I heard a lot of noise, a huge commotion, coming from the courtyard. It was September 1939 and the courtyard was filled with Polish soldiers. They looked terrible — bedraggled, dirty, many of them wounded. The Nazis had started the war. There were used bandages and blood all around. I saw my mother downstairs in the courtyard, giving orders for the wounded officers to be taken up to the house and for beds to be brought for the soldiers in the courtyard. My grandmother and my aunt both thought that my mother had gone mad, that she was turning their home into a field hospital. That is exactly what she was doing.
Poland was soon divided between the Germans and the Soviets, and our city was now part of the Soviet Union. Although the Soviets did not kill Jews, the Communist government did not like rich people, whom they called the bourgeoisie. Because my family was rich, my grandmother was labelled an exploiter of the proletariat and an enemy of the peasants. The entire family was expelled from Lwów and forced to move at least one hundred kilometres outside the town. The Soviets seized all the furniture and other household belongings, but I remember particularly the two Bechstein grand pianos that they also took. One piano was my mother’s, who was a pianist before she moved to Vienna, and the other was my aunt’s. We decided to go to Cisna, one of the villages on land owned by my grandmother.
Leaving Lwów, we rode in a huge horse-drawn wagon with about six people, and the servants rode in another wagon. The servants were like family. As we were going toward Cisna, we saw in the distance a group of people approaching us. As they got closer, we saw a Ukrainian Orthodox priest, with his long beard and cross, at the head of a procession. Behind him, Ukrainian women followed in their exquisitely embroidered blouses with an offering of bread and salt, the traditional ceremonial way of greeting important visitors to their home. We stopped, and the Orthodox priest bowed down practically to the ground in front of my grandmother. Other people grabbed her hands and kissed them.
I knew that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and Ukrainians in general, had no love for Jews. Many Ukrainians were on the side of Hitler from the very beginning, helping the Nazis kill Jews. Antisemitism permeated all of Polish and Ukrainian life. Yet, with the approach of the Jewish landlady, considered the owner of the village, all the residents came bowing down and greeting her with the greatest love and respect. I realized not too much later that the Ukrainians hated the Soviets even more than they hated the Jews. So, having been thrown out of Lwów by the Soviets, we were to be honoured and embraced with all possible hospitality because we were now, ironically, the enemy of their enemy.
My mother said she didn’t mind living in the village but was outraged that the Soviets took both pianos. With a combination of naïveté, nerve and bravery, she went back to Lwów, to the head office of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, to complain. The man she saw just happened to be the head of the Soviet police. He asked her if she played the piano and then had her play for him. The Soviet commandant turned out to be a highly cultured man who also played the piano. He fell in love with my mother, and within a few weeks we were all back in our old house in Lwów. All the furniture the Soviets had taken was brought back, along with only my mother’s piano, to the great annoyance of my aunt.
In June 1941, hell began. It was bad, and it grew worse and worse; it was unspeakably horrible. Nothing quite describes it. The Nazis had invaded the Soviet Union. They began to arrest people, hanging people in the street, beating people on the street. They took away food, and people were hungry. We started hearing about the Germans killing people systematically. Some days they killed old people, other days men or women or children. People would talk about whom the Germans would take away the next day to be killed. It was a guessing game. There are not enough words in the English language, in any language, to describe the horror. Through every feeling that a human being could have, through every sense — eyesight, smell, hearing, hunger, thirst — people experienced countless modes of pain and torture during the German occupation.
After the Germans came into Lwów, my family, along with some others, were squeezed into one giant room in my grandmother’s house. It had been the salon. There were sixteen of us, with no running water, no toilet, just two buckets. It was horrible to have sixteen people in one room, using those buckets. It was uncomfortable and it was demeaning. And there was hunger. So much hunger. We were in that room for about a year. But we could still come and go, not like those in the ghetto. We were just all put together, as more Jewish people were being crammed into the district. My grandmother’s houses were all occupied by Jews at this point.
One day, my two great-uncles went out as they often did. I was out on the street with two of my girlfriends. There was a building site, an empty lot, with a big grassy area in the middle that had a fence around it made of rough boards with knots in it. Some of the knots had fallen out, leaving holes, and the three of us were looking through the holes to see what was there. It was crowded, full of people, all men. The men were in a circle and in the middle there were Germans with guns yelling something that we did not understand. One of the girls pointed to Uncle Zygmund standing there, and beside him was his brother, Uncle Henryk. Then the Germans shot them. They shot them all. They were falling all over, falling on each other. I didn’t see any blood, strangely enough, watching through this wooden fence. They killed them all.
We didn’t even cry. We were stunned. I didn’t want to go home, and when I finally did go home, people were talking and saying how worried they were that the two uncles were still out, that they should have returned by now. And I said nothing. I couldn’t tell them. It was too horrible. I didn’t tell them. To this day I don’t remember how they found out, but it was not from me. Because I couldn’t tell them.
After this, I recall overhearing parts of the adults’ conversations. I heard, “We must save the child.” I was the only child. I heard it repeated by various people more than once. “We must save the child.” And they all agreed on that.
My mother and I eventually left the house in Lwów and travelled to a beautiful, small historical Polish city called Tarnów, located between Lwów and Krakow, where we knew a family. Before the war, they were close friends of one of my uncles, whom the Germans had killed. My uncle had met Mrs. Kobylański, a widow, and her two children, and had had a relationship with her and had helped her raise the children. The children, a boy and a girl, had adored him. My mother and I went to this woman’s home where, by now, the two children were grown. The son, Mieczysław Kobylański, was twenty-three years old and working. The mother was utterly terrified of our presence. She had a right to be frightened. It was incredibly dangerous to help Jews, to feed Jews, to give Jewish people clothing, food, water or any other kind of help. If Christian people, Polish people, were found trying to hide a Jew, they were quite likely to be killed by the Germans. Therefore, all those who were willing to risk their lives to help a Jewish person were heroes, true heroes.
The woman wanted us to leave, but her son said that we were staying. Even though he was young, he was the man of the house. Through his connections with the Polish underground, he got us superb false documents — birth certificates for me and my mother, a phony marriage certificate and school certificates for my mother, a baptismal certificate for me, all phony. My mother’s Polish name was Józefa Krupilnicka; mine was Maria Anna Krupilnicka. He also found us an apartment — a gorgeous apartment in a very old house. He got my mother a job in the kitchen of the German officers’ club, right under the noses of the enemy. There was my mother, making sandwiches and salads for the German officers. I distinctly remember her coming home every day and taking something out of the top of her blouse. It was usually something the size of a walnut, or maybe a little bigger: a piece of butter, a piece of meat, cheese or whatever she could steal. It was a serious crime to steal from the Germans, to steal something from your job, but she took the chance because we had nothing.
Years later, I decided that I had to do something to honour the man who saved my life, Mieczysław Kobylański. In the early 1980s, my husband and I went to Yad Vashem in Israel, where I gave testimony about my life during the war. I was interviewed several times to ensure the accuracy of my statement. We persuaded Mr. Kobylański and his wife to come to Israel in 1985 to attend the ceremony, where he received the honour recognizing him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Kobylański and I planted a tree in the Garden of the Righteous. The gardener handed us a seedling to plant and gave us a bucket of water. But I said to him, “Look, this is hopeless. This can’t possibly grow. It’s so hot. We have one little bucket of water. This can never be a tree.” And the gardener said, “Don’t worry. It will be watered.” I said, “By whom? How?” And he said, “Oh, the angels water it. The angels cry on this garden and their tears water the trees. You will see that your tree will grow.” The tree today is enormous. Enormous. And I am glad that I, at least, could do that for Mr. Kobylański.
I walked from place to place with different pieces of paper in my braids. At ten years old, I was a courier for the Polish underground. I was never afraid. I knew that I was quick and would not easily be caught.
We stayed in Tarnów for about ten months, and in October 1942, we were on our way to Warsaw. With our beautiful false documents, we were able to find ourselves an apartment. I only remember the name of the district where our apartment was located. It was called Koło, which means wheel or circle. We were in a large apartment with many people. I, of course, knew no one in this apartment. Many people were always coming and going. I had no idea what was going on.
Every day my mother used to plait my long hair into two very thick, long braids. I could not do my own hair. She would tuck tiny pieces of very thin, almost transparent paper into my braids. My mother would give me an address that I had to memorize and I was told to go there, to just go there. So I would go there and ring a bell or knock on the door. Somebody would open the door, immediately take me inside, open up my braids to take out the paper, insert another piece of paper into my braids and give me another address. Again, I couldn’t write anything down. I had to remember. I used to walk a lot in Warsaw; on occasion, if I was going far, I was given money for the streetcar, but mainly I walked.
During those days in Warsaw, I walked from place to place with different pieces of paper in my braids. At ten years old, I was a courier for the Polish underground. I was never afraid. I knew that I was quick and would not easily be caught. I knew I was at war. I knew who the enemy was and who was a friend, what was safe and what was not safe. I knew I was doing something important. I was a soldier and I knew it.
I think my mother knew what would happen. She prepared me for life and survival as best she could. She taught me everything you could teach a child in these circumstances — what to say, how to behave, what to eat, where to hide, how to run, when not to run — survival skills. She also provided for a situation in which I might not survive. She gave me a signet ring containing cyanide powder under the stone. She told me to swallow the powder if I was caught by the Germans. She also told me it wouldn’t hurt. Growing up, I was told by my parents that I was the most intelligent, most brilliant person in the world. And I believed it. So when I was in great need, in dangerous situations, I knew that I would figure out a way because I was smart. My parents told me so.
In March 1943, instead of sending me on an errand with paper in my braids, my mother took me with her to a house. She told me to stay in the yard and wait for her, that she would come back soon to get me. It was warm and the snow was melting. The ground was very wet and mushy. There were no people. I waited for a long time; there was no sign of my mother. While I was waiting, I saw a woman coming toward the house, moving toward the entrance. And something possessed me to climb a nearby tree. Despite the branches being very slippery with bits of ice and snow, I managed to climb quite high.
The woman saw me, and instead of going right into the house, she came into the yard. She looked at me and I could feel her fear. She said to me, “Swear to me on the holy blood of Jesus Christ that you are not a Jew.” And the ten-year-old sitting in the tree thought, Isn’t she stupid? If I’m not a Jew, then of course I’ll swear on the holy blood of Jesus Christ that I am not a Jew. On the other hand, if I am a Jew, it means nothing to me. I’ll swear on anything. How stupid this woman is. I knew she was really afraid of me. So I swore to her that I wasn’t a Jew. Whether she believed me or not, I could tell she felt momentarily relieved. She told me to come down and meet her two girls. When I came down, two girls who appeared to be my age, maybe a year or two younger, appeared out of nowhere. She took us inside the house and we sat down, the two girls and me, and she gave us each a plate of soup. I looked at the dishes very closely, examining the soup in all those plates, curious to see if I was getting less than the other two girls. She gave me more. A tiny little bit more. She knew and understood something, having seen this lonely child sitting in a tree in March. She asked me a few questions. I said that my mother went out with her girlfriend and was supposed to have been here already to pick me up. It turned out that my mother’s girlfriend lived in her house, working as a governess for her two children, and she knew that this woman, this girlfriend, was a member of the Polish underground. She had no idea where they were. My mother did not come back.
I spent the night with the woman and her two children in Warsaw. She was the widow of a high-ranking Polish officer who had been killed at the very beginning of the war. She fed me and it felt good to have a full stomach. She didn’t say anything more about my being Jewish or Christian. I would be going to an orphanage where I would be safe and she would try to find my mother.
Before taking me to the orphanage, she had already found out from her contacts in the underground that the Germans had caught my mother and my mother’s friend, her children’s governess. They were found in a basement with other Polish underground members, making Molotov cocktails. The Nazis took them both to Pawiak prison, the horrific Warsaw prison where Polish political prisoners were kept, on March 24, 1943. When I found out that they had captured my mother, that she was in this jail, I felt the enormity of this tragedy. I understood the horror of the Germans having my mother.
The lady took me to the Catholic orphanage in Warsaw, which was a nightmare. It was right outside the walls of the Warsaw ghetto. I knew that Jews were inside the ghetto. One day in May 1943, we saw, from the orphanage, smoke rising in the distance through the windows looking out over the Warsaw ghetto. I heard somebody say something, but at first I couldn’t quite make it out. It must have come from one of the teachers because the children wouldn’t have known. Whoever it was said that the Jews were burning. And the children began to jump and dance and celebrate, all shouting, “The Jews are burning! The Jews are burning!” And the teachers clapped their hands — “The Jews are burning! The Jews are burning!” — encouraging the children to jump around. I could not let on my true feelings. I remember not jumping and trying to avert my face. I felt such pain. I understood that these were my people in the ghetto being burned alive by the Germans. I was in a Christian orphanage, surrounded by antisemitic teachers and ignorant children who were dancing at the tragedy of the Jews. The ghetto was being wiped out by the Germans. I was not aware that there had been an uprising by the Jews in the ghetto and that most of the fighters died. The Germans systematically destroyed each house and killed as many people as they could, deporting everyone else.
With the constant hunger and the antisemitic remarks all around me, I couldn’t stand being at the orphanage any longer. I had been there for about two months before I ran away. I knew that I had to go somewhere I could get help, but along the way I needed to find a place where I would be safe. I had no documents — my mother had both of ours when she was caught — so I was afraid of being identified as Jewish. I decided that the best place to hide would be in the thick of people, and the railway station seemed like a logical place. The stations were always crowded, so I thought I could hide in a crowd. I first went to the station in Warsaw, where I stole money and bits of food from the travellers. At that time, people might wait for days to get on a train. I eventually decided to go back to the family who had helped us in Tarnów, the Kobylańskis.
I spent what, in retrospect, seemed like a lot of time in railway stations. I don’t remember how long I was travelling and I certainly don’t remember which stations I was in. I would just get on and off the train without a ticket. I was always hungry and afraid I would be discovered, but at the same time I stayed alert to any opportunity to steal some food or money. I became very good at stealing — from people’s purses, pockets and wherever I thought there might be something.
The Germans often instituted so-called controls where a group of Germans would get on a train, ask for the passengers’ documents, look in their luggage and question them about where they were going and why. It was wartime and because of the scarcity of goods like liquor and meat, there was a lot of smuggling. People would sell the goods on the black market. If the Germans found any suspect goods, they would confiscate them.
I was on the train one day when some German police got on. The train was filled with Poles who appeared to be mainly peasants and working people. A lot of them were probably professional smugglers who carried food and liquor back and forth from one city to another to make a living. The compartment I was in was packed and everyone was terrified that the Germans would come into it. The Germans did come in and began to ask questions, inquiring about who everyone was and what things they had with them. They had the people open their suitcases and bags. The Germans took some things and left other things. There was a peasant family in the compartment with me with a lot of kids. A policeman spoke to one man and gestured toward the others, asking, “What’s all this?” I was there among the kids and the man said, “They’re all mine.” He knew I was there. He saw me and looked at me for a long time. With a perfectly straight face he said, “They’re all mine.” The Germans believed him and left.
The miracle here was that not only did this peasant man willingly save my life, but also that his children never said a word. Any one of the kids could have said she’s not ours, we don’t know her. And they didn’t. They said nothing.
With all the starts and stops, it took me more than a week to get to Tarnów from Warsaw. I mostly slept on the train and at railway stations. People sometimes gave me food. I am sure that more than one person suspected that there was something not right about me, that I might be Jewish, because a small kid doesn’t travel alone. But nobody asked. It was as if they were all decent, and maybe they were.
I finally got to the home of the Kobylańskis in Tarnów. When I appeared at their door, the mother, Mrs. Kobylański, was absolutely hysterical with anger and fear. Her reaction to me this time was much stronger than when my mother and I had first come. I’m sure she was thinking that her son had already done so much for us by getting us the documents and finding my mother a job and a home.
Mieczysław and his sister, Jadwiga, wanted me to stay, but they didn’t want to fight with their mother anymore, so I had to leave. However, strangely enough, he had learned that my aunt, Elza Katz, my mother’s younger and only sister, was still alive and in Lwów. He only had an approximate address for her. He gave me some money and I bought myself a train ticket to Lwów.
In Lwów Rita found her aunt Elza, who was living under a false identity as a Polish gentile named Helena Woźniak. Together, under their false identities, they lived with a Ukrainian mother and daughter, who was Rita’s age, as well as other Ukrainians. Although at times their Jewish identities were suspected, they lived there safely until the area was liberated in the summer of 1944. In 1945, after the war ended, they left Lwów. They lived in Cieplice Śląskie Zdrój, where Rita attended high school, until Rita immigrated to Canada.