Lillian Boraks-Nemetz: My Holocaust Survival
The following is an excerpt from child Holocaust survivor Lillian Boraks-Nemetz’s book The Old Brown Suitcase, published by Ronsdale Press in 2005.
WARSAW GHETTO, 1942
The Ghetto is overcrowded. More than 400,000 people are living in a space where only 160,000 used to live. But now, the German authorities want to send us away. Those who have not died from sickness or starvation. The soldiers begin to raid different parts of the Ghetto and take people away. No one knows when their street or home will be raided next. Just in case, we keep our suitcases packed and ready. My own brown suitcase is beginning to look a little battered.
One early morning, they come to our building. We can hear their boots march into the courtyard. They shout in German, banging on doors. We wait in our room, until they come, their black polished boots echoing up the long corridor. They get closer and closer and then stop. A heavy fist pounds our door. It bursts open and a red-faced soldier rushes into our room. He levels his rifle at us.
“Juden raus!” (Get out, Jews), he hollers, and his rifle follows us as we take our suitcases.
We file out of the building and join the others in the courtyard. Everyone lines up with their belongings at a table set up in the centre of the courtyard. As an officer checks everyone’s identity cards, he tells them to line up in two rows. When our turn comes, the officer ignores the fact that my parents work for the German Shop and orders us to line up at the left. My parents say nothing. The soldiers herd us out onto the street where there is already a long column of people waiting. Jews, young, old and middle-aged. All look shabby, sick and starved. We line up with them and wait.
People whisper, some are sitting on their bundles.
“Where are we going?” they ask one another, “What will happen to us?”
A man in a torn coat asks Father, “Do you know about the labor camps? They say that it’s better there. If you work you survive.”
“There are so many rumours,” answers Father. “People are taken to a deportation depot Umschlagplatz, and then taken by train to some resettlement camp in the east. I am sure that is where we are going. But I don’t know exactly what happens when we get there.”
The soldiers order us to start walking. They stride alongside pointing their rifles at the moving throng. Though it is early fall, the day is cold and rainy. My coat and shoes are soon soaked through.
“Faster,” shouts the soldier who ordered us from our room. His red face scowls out from under his steel helmet. He shoves an old couple forward with the butt of his rifle, and they fall to the ground. They lie there, while the soldier orders us to walk over them.
Another soldier beats a woman with a black truncheon. She falls screaming to the ground. The soldier forces her to get up and continue without her belongings.
I stumble. The soldier screams at me and hits me on the shoulder. I fall. Father instantly picks me up and steadies me. “Be brave,” he whispers.
I don’t feel brave. My knees are bloody, and my shoulder hurts, but I still hang on to my suitcase. I feel like an animal who is being punished for something. But what did I do? They drive us along in a pony – like trot. We cower beneath the menacing batons and guns, shoulders hunched over.
There are people lying on the sidewalks. Some dead, some still half alive. Blood stains the pavement. Starved children with swollen bellies and bony legs hover next to the buildings, watching us pass.
Suddenly the column comes to a halt as shots boom out. I am lost in a maze of filthy coats and rags. Blue Stars of David flicker before my eyes. People push against me. It’s hard to keep my balance. Then I find myself next to Mother, who is carrying my crying sister. I clutch Mother’s arm with my free hand. When I finally let go, there are red marks in her flesh, where I have dug my nails. Father appears at my side and pulls Mother and me out of the lineup. “Run, run, quickly, through that gate!” He thrusts us forward. We run through an arched gateway into a quiet courtyard. No one follows us. Father leads us through an open door into a deserted apartment. We huddle in its dark corridor for what seems a long time.
Finally, Father breaks the silence, wiping the perspiration off his forehead. “It was a chance we had to take. We were only five minutes away from Umschlagplatz and the trains. I have seen them pack those cattle cars. They put so many people in each, how can they breathe? And who knows where they go from there. I’ve heard that they separate parents from children, and that no one comes back.” Father’s voice is weary. Basia is asleep, and Mother sits on the floor against a wall, with her eyes closed. We haven’t eaten all day.
When all appears quiet, we leave and learn that we must find another place to live because our part of the ghetto has been liquidated.
Several weeks later Father hears a rumour that all the children in the Ghetto will be taken from their parents and sent away. No one knows where.
Father and Mother decide that my sister and I must leave the Ghetto. There are many questions I want to ask, but the troubled look on my parents’ faces keeps me silent.
Each night I lie awake, terrible thoughts flooding my mind. Each day I wait for Father to tell me that I must leave. There is hardly any food, even at the factory. Except for the walk to Schultz I never go outside any more and it’s almost spring.
I awake one morning with a fever.
My head hurts, my body is on fire, through a mist I hear voices saying, “It’s measles. She can’t go anywhere.” I toss and turn and sweat for days. Once when I wake up I see Mother standing over the cot. She is holding Basia, who is dressed in a coat and hat.
“Say good -bye to your sister. She is going away, ” says Mother quietly. Through a daze, I try to focus on the bundle in a brown wool coat and a white hat with bunny ears. Two big blue eyes in a little face look down at me. What does she want from me? Can’t she see I am sick? I push her away, and turn towards the wall.
In the morning I wake up feeling better. The fever seems to have gone. The sun is shining outside. Where is everyone? I look around the room and see that Basia’s bed is gone. I run to the wardrobe, and see an empty shelf where her things once were. My God, I didn’t know she was leaving for good. I didn’t even say good -bye.
That evening my parents make sure that my brown suitcase is properly packed. Although it is so full that it is hard to close, I refuse to part with my books and my sunflower costume. I beg and they let me keep them.
“Now don’t be frightened,” says Father almost cheerfully. “You will have to leave soon, but I don’t know when.”
I go to sleep feeling comforted, but wake with a start.
Someone is shaking me.
“Hurry, hurry,” says Father. Mother dresses me quickly and hugs me. As she says goodbye her voice is thick with held-back tears.
A minute later, Father and I are shivering on a misty street. It is dawn.
The street is deserted.
We walk quickly. I ask no questions, for I know what we are doing. When we hear the rumble of a truck approaching, Father pulls me into a doorway. An army truck passes, and we continue walking.
We stop at a half-burnt building. Father pushes at the front door, which squeaks open and we walk into a dark apartment. It is empty, and Father tells me to sit on my suitcase and wait.
“Don’t be scared,” he says. “I am waiting for someone.” He paces up and down as if rehearsing some speech in his mind.
The door squeaks again, and I jump. A man walks in wearing the cap and badge of the Jewish Police Force of the Ghetto. Father greets him with a handshake, then takes a small jewellery box, a pair of leather gloves and a bar of soap out of his pockets and hands them over. The man opens the jewellery box and in the dawn light something sparkles. It’s Mother’s diamond ring. The man stuffs these things into his coat pocket and leaves.
Father tells me to be patient. He tells me what I already know, that I am leaving the Ghetto.
I sit on my suitcase and keep silent. A rat scurries across the floor. Then another. I move my suitcase away from the squeaking rats, and Father stops pacing. He shoos away the rats and sits down next to me on the floor.
“You are going to your grandmother in the country if all goes well,” he says slowly.
Babushka! I will see Babushka! For a moment I am overcome with excitement and feel brighter in this gloomy room.
“Are you coming too, Papa?” I ask.
“No darling girl, I am not. We would be too conspicuous, and I can’t leave your mother alone. Just remember what I told you. We can’t let the Germans win. We must survive. So when the time comes, you must follow my instructions perfectly.”
“I will Papa,” I mumble into his shoulder. My throat is all choked up with tears, but my eyes feel dry, and my body feels numb. I try not to cry.
As daylight approaches, I hear sounds I haven’t heard for months. I hear street cars and other vehicles, sounds of a normal city.
“Where are we, Papa?” I ask.
“Near the Ghetto gate to the other side,” he replies, confirming my guess.
The policeman returns.
“It’s all fixed,” he says, “I gave them the goodies. They promised to pretend not to see her. But you know them. They can turn on you anytime. It’s a chance you have to take. Good luck!” He salutes and leaves.
Father sits down on the floor again with his head in his hands. After a long moment, he gets up.
“We’re leaving now. Remember what I told you,” he says, taking my hand and my suitcase.
We leave the building and walk for several blocks. We stop and Father squeezes my hand tightly.
About half a block from us is a busy checkpoint in the GhettoWall. Three soldiers in steel helmets hold rifles as if ready to shoot. They march back and forth in front of the large opening. Several Polish Policemen in navy blue uniforms stand by the opening.
“This is the way out of the Ghetto, you are going to cross the line in a few minutes,” Father says gravely. “In the pocket of your coat is a false identity card. The name on it is “Irena Kalinska.” It says that you are a Catholic orphan from Warsaw. There will be a woman waiting for you on the other side. She will know you, and she will take you to Babushka’s.”
I am frozen. I say nothing. Father gives me the suitcase. My hand can barely hold it.
“When I tell you, start walking,” he says. ” Walk through the checkpoint at a normal pace. Do not hesitate, or run. Above all, do not turn around to look at me.” He hugs me with tears in his eyes.
I look at him for one last moment, let go of his hand, and begin the longest walk of my life.
I try to feel brave as I march towards the checkpoint.
As I draw closer, the green German uniforms grow bigger, and the brass buttons of the Polish Police coats gleam in the sunlight. I arrive at the checkpoint and begin to walk through. The gendarmes and the police do not appear to notice me. As I walk straight ahead, they turn away. My knees feel weak, and heartbeat fills my throat, but I keep on walking. A few more steps and I am on the other side.
I hear shouting beside me.
“I know who you are, you little Jewess! I saw you!” A little boy in rags points his finger at me. I clutch my suitcase tightly as if it were Father’s hand, expecting the worst. All of a sudden the shouting ceases as a tall woman in a grey suit grabs my hand and pulls me into a side street.
She stops for a moment to take my suitcase from me. “You can call me Agnes,” she says. “Don’t be afraid.” Only then do I remember that Father had said someone would be waiting for me on the other side.
We walk quickly now. The beggar boy is left behind, but I feel that the whole world is staring at us. We rush into a train station. Agnes shows the conductor our tickets and we climb into one of the cars. It is almost empty. A few minutes later the train pulls out of the station.
Agnes sits next to me. She is wearing a grey hat to match her suit. Her eyes are grey too, but large and bright. She is fair- haired. I wonder if she is Jewish. But then, I am fair-haired too.
It is my first train ride in two years. I sit on the wooden bench taking in things I haven’t seen for so long. There are fields and forests, peasants on carts filled with straw, cows grazing in the pastures and farm houses with white curtains in the windows.
There are no boundaries for miles, and the wall of the Ghetto is behind me. But I wish my parents and my sister were here. God knows when I will see them again.