In 1933, Cousin Raymond was finally old enough to ask the four questions at pesach – why is this night different from all other nights? One year, I said it was because Aunt Hadassa and Cousin Cerla made enough gefilte fish for an army! Cousin Ernst wouldn’t stop teasing me about it until Aunt Esther set him straight.
But this year all the grown-ups could talk about was this crazy Hitler in Germany and how much he hates us because we are Jews. Father said he is dangerous but Mother said,“Moszek, don’t frighten the children.” Father said, “Bronka, I know what I say. We may have to leave Poland.”
And he was almost right. By the summer of 1939, the three of us Milsteins had left Kalisz for Lwow. On the morning of September 1, I was dressing as usual in front of my mirror, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of silver in the sky. Then … an explosion! We were under attack! I heard screaming from below in the streets, and the announcer on the radio shouted “Uwaga … nat hodzi …” and with pounding hearts, Mother and Father and I hid in the basement.
The Bolsheviks marched in and occupied Lwow for the next two years. How Father aged! He became white haired, depressed, with a bad ulcer. Although Mother and I wanted him to stop smoking, it was his only pleasure.
On a hot summer day in July of 1941, the Nazi hordes invaded Lwow. Right away the Jews had to move to the Ghetto. I found a job at the Ghetto hospital.
My parents packed a few suitcases and started the walk into the Ghetto. Crossing under the rail bridge on Peltewna Street – the Bridge of Death – an SS soldier stopped them. “You,” he said, pointing at Father. “You come with me.” Mother tried to stop him. “Leave him alone, he is old, he is sick.” The SS man sneered and said, “We need sick old men. Don’t try to stop me, or you’ll come to the same fate.” And the SS took Father away.
We looked for Father for months. Covering our Star of David with our overcoats, Mother and I snuck into the Aryan section of the city. It was no use.
There were Aktions in the Ghetto where the Nazis would go on rampages of killing, shooting, torturing and hanging Jews. I decided it would be safer for Mother to come to the hospital with me. She stayed in the clinic beside the maternity ward where I worked.
Then one day, in August of 1942, there was an Aktion in the hospital. The SS came through, with their whips and guns. And Mother disappeared.
But I could not stop my work at the hospital – by then I was moved to Admissions, giving baths to incoming patients from Janowska Camp. The bathwater would teem with lice. The patients were like living skeletons, their skin hanging off their bones.
I became sick with typhus, but I stayed fully dressed and working. The Aktions were happening all the time, and you could not be weak. Once I almost fainted, but a nurse stuck a needle in my thigh and saved me. It became infected, and I had to have surgery. There was no anaesthetic. I screamed but it healed.
There were many horrors. Once I saw Obersturmfuhrer Gebauer approach a group of women. For no reason, he pulled the ear of one of them and shot her in the temple. She fell, became violet and yellow, with open eyes. Dead instantly.
At the end of May, 1943, we heard the Ghetto would be liquidated. This meant cattle cars to the camps and certain death. I knew I had to escape. Some people ran away and hid in the sewers. But not me.
I got false papers, identifying me as a good Polish Catholic girl. The hospital doctor found out, and asked me if I needed money. But I had enough money for three weeks. I could last that long. Otherwise, I would be dead anyway.
The next day, I walked out of the hospital with my dark hair hidden under a turban. I saw irises growing in the field, and picked a bouquet. If anyone stopped me, I would pretend to be a flighty girl, and say I was taking a bouquet of irises to the Ghetto commandent.
But no one stopped me. I kept walking. And I made it.
I took a train to Bavaria, where I found a job in the kitchen of the Hotel Schiffmeister in Berchtesgaden. It was four kilometres from Hitler’s summer residence, the Eagle’s Nest. The Nazis never suspected I was Jewish. What Jew would dare wander into their midst?
But there were Polish people there, and other nationalities. They suspected I was Jewish. But what could they say? Perhaps the Nazis would ask, why do you think she is Jewish? Maybe you are Jewish yourself. Everyone was suspicious. You just kept your mouth shut.
My nerves were like frozen. I thought it would never end. The one day, I saw short dark men, wearing rubber boots and speaking French, rolling a big round portrait of the Fuhrer out of the hotel. “Bien sur, c’est notre vin,” one said as he drank a bottle of wine. They were Moroccans, and together with American GI’s, had come to liberate us!
I was free, hard as it was to believe. Almost immediately, I went to work for the Red Cross. Every day, I walked from the Displaced Persons Camp to Munich, where I looked for any record, any trace of my family.
And finally, I found Cousin Max! He and all five of the Salzman brothers survived in Paris. I wept tears of joy. Almost everyone had become Catholic by then, and so I found a priest. “I want to be Catholic, I want to go to Paris to be with my family,” I told him. I prayed to the patron saint of Poland, Matka Boska Czestochowska every day! But when I applied to go to France, the French government turned me down.
So I applied to go to Canada, with a Polish Catholic man I had met in Munich. I became a Catholic, like him. This was much better. Canada was a land of riches that had never known war. Canada would be a new life. We would have a family, and we would be happy. And I could leave the past behind me, far away.
Because to be a Jew, is to suffer and be afraid. Better not to speak about it. No one needs to know.
Story written by Chana Milstein
copywrite 2009 Chana Milstein