Ed Herman: My Warsaw Ghetto Memories
May 14, 2013, 9:35 pm ET
Economist Ed Herman was born a Jew in Warsaw, Poland in 1931. Against the odds, he managed to survive the Holocaust as a child. Here, he recounts his escape and reflects on what it was like to return to his birthplace.
After an absence of 68 years, my wife and I returned to Poland in August 2011. We had no intention of ever going back, as we did not want to think of all the things that had happened to us there, but went because The World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust, whose meetings we had attended a few times before, were meeting in Warsaw Poland, where both of us were born. The first day of the conference started on Aug. 20, 2011, our 50th wedding anniversary, and the trip gave us an opportunity to retrace the years of our lost childhoods.
Reliving the past was very difficult emotionally. I do not think that I could have done it before our 2011 trip to Poland. I am finally able to discuss in a public forum my lost childhood years, and my Holocaust experiences, after a silence of over 70 years.
“Although I had documents stating that I am a Christian, it was always easy to discover my true identity because of my circumcision. The only thing that the police had to do is to ask me to pull down my pants.”
I was born in Warsaw, Poland, on Dec. 6, 1931, on the holiday of Hanukkah, a festival of lights, celebrating the miracle of oil, meant to burn for one day, but which burned for eight days. My survival, like the Hanukkah oil, is also a miracle.
When I was 2 years old, my parents moved from Warsaw to Katowice. The reason was that my mother, a stunning beauty, was very popular in Warsaw where she grew up, and was always surrounded by numerous male admirers. My father was very jealous, and because of that decided to move to Katowice.
In order for you to understand better my Holocaust experiences, you may try to visualize yourself in my situation. You are about 7 years old living with loving parents, and a younger sister in Katowice, Poland. Your family has a car, relatively rare at that time in Poland, and life is very good. On Sundays you go on outings with your family. It’s the end of August 1939; World War II begins a few days later. You are told that you will be visiting your grandfather in Warsaw and will be back in a few days. The few days dragged into 72 years, as I did not return to Katowice until August of 2011.
Walking towards to my prewar home in Katowice we came across a streetcar terminal. I do not know how I recalled that at that location at the age of about 6, I took a streetcar by myself to my first grade class. The memory of my father watching me getting on a streetcar was objectionable to me. I considered myself to be all grown up and independent, not requiring any supervision.
Because of this memory, I experienced a total emotional meltdown [when I returned]; I cried like a baby, [but] having my wife around helped me cope with my tears. During our trip through Poland, both my wife and I experienced many highly emotional moments, and we cried a lot.
During the war, at times, I felt like crying, but through a significant amount of effort, I was able to suppress my emotions. I told myself that I am not a baby, that my parents would not want me to cry.
The following is a more detailed narrative of my survival. My personal journey is a narrative of strong faith, growing up in a hurry, resilience and strength in face of adversity, a story of close escapes against all odds and miraculous survival.
At the end of August 1939, we left from Katowice to Warsaw in our car, to be with my maternal grandfather. I saw many refugees on the road. A few days later, on Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Katowice, my hometown, was occupied by German troops within a few hours after the invasion of Poland. This was the beginning of the Holocaust.
Warsaw was subjected to very heavy bombardment. For 30 days, my family and I were there. We ran from shelter to shelter, many buildings collapsed in front of our eyes.
My father left us in Warsaw; he traveled to the East of Poland in order to join the Polish army. He wanted to fight the Germans. I missed him very much; I was very close to him. I did not know if he was able to stay alive. I did not see him again for 10 years.
After Warsaw surrendered to the Nazis, the persecution and deprivation of Jewish people began almost immediately.
In October of 1940, the Warsaw ghetto was established; over 400,000 people were packed into an area of 1.3 square miles. The Nazis decreed that all Jews had to live within its boundaries, and for identification purposes had to wear armbands with the Star of David. I saw much suffering around me. The ghetto was very overcrowded. There was a typhoid epidemic. Many buildings, including the one in which I lived with my grandfather, were under quarantine. From our windows I could see the inside of the ghetto wall.
During the winter I was very cold; to keep warm I stayed in bed covered by whatever I could find. I was continuously hungry. Because of flour shortages the meager bread rations that we received contained sawdust. I was dreaming of the white Kaiser rolls that I had for breakfast before the war in Katowice. In the ghetto, young starving children were begging for food, dead bodies were just lying in the streets.
We the survivors are only a part of the narrative of this horrible period. The complete story of the Holocaust is the murder of over 6 million of our people. Over 1 million children perished during this period. The probability of a Jewish child surviving, particularly a boy was very low. Before the war there were over 3 million Jews in Poland. Less than 10 percent survived.
In Warsaw, I had close relatives who lived right across from the notorious Pawiak prison, run by the Gestapo, where executions took place daily. I used to visit my family there often. On one such visit to their house, crossing a checkpoint manned by police, I was beaten up by a policeman for no reason at all, but simply because I was there. Frequently, open trucks would bring prisoners to the Pawiak prison. When I would hear a truck coming, I would start running together with other people and try to hide; because the Nazi guards who were transporting prisoners would jump off the open trucks and beat up indiscriminately anyone who was present on the street.
In the early summer of 1942, my mother decided that for my survival it was necessary for me to be smuggled out of the ghetto. It was just in time, because the liquidation of the ghetto and the transport of Warsaw Jews to the death camp of Treblinka started a few months later. Between July 22 and Sept. 21, 1942, 254,000 inhabitants of the ghetto were deported to the extermination camp in Treblinka.
I visited Treblinka on my trip to Poland in August 2011. There were five of us, and we were the only people there. We arrived at twilight; the sun was just disappearing on the horizon, the weather was beautiful and an eerie silence encompassed me. I started walking towards the death camp, surrounded by the beauty of nature, bushes, tall trees, the smell of grass and flowers from the nearby fields. It was extremely difficult to comprehend that as a child I was not very far away from this place where about 800,000 of our people were brutally murdered. The contrast between the magnificence of nature and the atrocities committed there by the Nazis was overwhelming and totally draining emotionally. The vision of this tragic place will remain with me for the rest of my life.
As the allied forces started advancing, the Nazis decided to cover up their crimes. They totally destroyed the camp which is now an open field with many stone monuments, each one representing a different community.
Although I did not have the required 10 people for chanting the traditional prayer for the departed, the Kaddish, I decided to recite it by myself. I felt that the souls of my beloved grandfather and of my relatives of blessed memory, who perished there, were with me; I was not alone.
I sometimes ponder how it happened that I survived the ghetto and the war, and so many of my innocent childhood friends and family perished. During the filming, I began to reminisce about the war years.
At the very beginning of the war, our Christian maid, a very decent human being, came from Katowice to Warsaw and gave my mother her own birth certificate. This helped my mother to legally secure an ID card as an Aryan, and because she was blonde, tall, and looked like a gentile, it was relatively safe for her to stay outside of the ghetto. This enabled her to smuggle food into the ghetto for our family.
As I mentioned earlier, my mother in order to save me, managed to remove me from that hell on earth, called the Warsaw ghetto. She took me to a village called Nowy Wisnicz, where she placed me with a Christian family. We separated: I stayed in Nowy Wisnicz, and she moved to Krakow.
Unexpectedly, shortly after my arrival, all the Jews in the village were given notice to assemble in a public square for deportation. When my mother heard about this, she became very concerned. She came from Krakow, and paid the prison guard in whose house I lived to hide me temporarily in his attic. Although I had documents stating that I am a Christian, it was always easy to discover my true identity because of my circumcision. The only thing that the police had to do is to ask me to pull down my pants.
“I saw the guard slaughter a pig to make sausages. If no one would have come to take me to another location, for his own protection, the guard would have most likely killed me like he did the pig.”
Several weeks ago, while driving, I suddenly started thinking as to what would have happened to me, if for some reason I could not be picked up from the attic, a very feasible scenario during the war. I remembered that before being hidden in the attic, I saw the guard slaughter a pig to make sausages. If no one would have come to take me to another location, for his own protection, the guard would have most likely killed me like he did the pig. Providentially, I was then only about 10 years old and did not think at that time of the worst-case scenario.
From Krakow, my mother sent a man by the name of Gajewski, a non-Jew, to pick me up from my hiding and bring me to her. He came and told me to meet him very early the next morning at the railroad station located a few miles away. When I left the attic, it was still dark; and I walked by myself on a dirt road to the station. There I met him, and we took the train to Krakow. On the train we met two young Polish women with whom he was acquainted. They looked at me and told him that he was transporting a Jewish child. He of course denied it; fortunately they did not denounce us to the police. Because of my dark hair and complexion, and sad brown eyes, I looked Jewish. Most polish kids were blond, blue eyed and were not circumcised. In Krakow I could only stay with my mother briefly; it was very dangerous for us to be together.
For our safety, she sent me to another Polish village, Dzialoszyce. I stayed there with a Christian family. Again, like in Nowy Wisnicz, the Jews of Dzialoszyce were told to assemble at the public square for deportation. To prevent any Jews from escaping, the village was surrounded by German soldiers and Polish police. Christian families were warned that there would be house to house searches, and any families harboring Jews would be shot. Mr. Gajewski, who had saved me in Nowy Wisnicz, had a brother in Dzialoszyce who was a fireman. In order to project some authority, the brother put on his official fireman’s uniform, including his shiny helmet, and took me to the railroad station. There were German and Polish police everywhere. The fireman’s boss was there as well and reprimanded him for wearing his uniform when not on duty. Being with him certainly saved my life. At the station I was met by my aunt, who was able to obtain legitimate documents for herself identifying her as a Christian. She took me by train to my mother, who for safety reasons had by that time moved to another location on the outskirts of Krakow. On the train there was an inspection of documents by German railroad police; fortunately they ignored me.
From Krakow, I was taken by train to Piwniczna, a mountain village, near the border with Slovakia. From there, in September of 1943, at the age of about 11, I was able to escape without any family through the Carpathian mountain range, from Poland to Slovakia, and eventually to Hungary. In these two countries at that time, the local Jewish population was safer than Jews in Poland. When leaving, as a child, I did not realize the immense threats and difficulties with which I would be confronted in Hungary.
My mother of blessed memory arranged for me, along with three men to be smuggled out of Poland. One of the men, to whom I will refer as Mr. A, had lost his wife and child to the Nazis, and had family in Budapest. My mother paid for his escape, in return he promised to take care of me when we would arrive in Budapest. Like the mother of Moses, my mother had to let me go. Obviously, she did not know if I would be able to survive by myself. She was a very courageous woman. I will always admire her inner emotional strength, the ability to send her young son into the unknown dangers in order to save him.
We walked at night with our two guides through the mountains. I heard the German border guards with their dogs, but we were able to evade them. Finally we crossed into Slovakia
There, we were arrested, jailed, and all our money and valuables were taken from us. Eventually we were ransomed out by the local Jewish community. At that time the Jews of Slovakia were still relatively free.
From Slovakia we walked again at night, accompanied by two guides, and crossed the border into Hungary, arriving at the outskirts of a small town, very early in the morning. For safety reasons, our guides split us into two groups. Two men went with one guide; I together with Mr. A , went with the second guide. We stayed in the guide’s house for a few hours, and then he took us to the railroad station. The two other members of our group were supposed to meet us there.
Unfortunately, the two men who went with the other guide were arrested by Hungarian police. They were sent back to Poland, and eventually ended up in Auschwitz. Miraculously they were able to survive the war. Since they did not show up at the station to meet us, as prearranged, our guide bought a train ticket for me and Mr. A. and we boarded the train for Budapest.
When we arrived at our destination, we went to the home of Mr. A’s family, had lunch there and then I was told to accompany a teenage boy, Mr. A’s relative, who took me to a coffee shop where many Jewish Polish refugees would gather. And then he just left me there to fend for myself.
This was the most traumatic moment of my life. I was just a little boy. I did not speak Hungarian, was all alone in Budapest, a large foreign city, had no documents, my possessions were what I was wearing, had no money and no family, and knew that if I was caught by the Hungarian police, I would be deported back to Poland, a certain death sentence. Emotionally it was very difficult for me to cope with my new reality. I was very lonely and vulnerable. Until very recently, when I shared this story with my wife or our children I would start crying. My wife who is not only a DDS but also a clinical PhD psychologist, helped me cope with my emotions, telling me that remembering does not mean reliving the past.
Luckily, I met in Budapest a wonderful Jewish Hungarian lady, Mrs. Schweitzer. She was of great help to me, as well as to other refugee children. Her devotion and assistance to us is a testimonial to the Talmudic statement, “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” …
There were other Jewish children from Poland like me. We had no family. We were alone. We lived on the streets of Budapest, slept in synagogues and in bed bug infested rooming houses, not knowing where we would sleep each night. It was a very difficult period of my life.
Towards the end of 1943, an orphanage for Jewish Polish children was established near Budapest in a place called Vac. I was one of the first few children who were placed there. Initially we did not have enough beds; I had to share a bed with a very young boy whose parents were murdered. He was very frightened, had nightmares and wet our bed every night. I would wake up drenched. Eventually I got my own bed.
In March of 1944, German troops entered Hungary. Within weeks, under the leadership of the war criminal Adolf Eichmann, the Nazis started deporting Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. Our orphanage was at risk, as the Nazis wanted to transfer all the children to a Ghetto near Vac. For our protection, all the children in the orphanage received false documents stating that we were Christian refugees from Poland. The director of the orphanage was a Christian; and we also had a priest on the staff of our institution. The Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations lists these two individuals as our saviors. Both of them were recognized by Yad Vashem for saving our orphanage from the Nazis.
Thinking of my childhood years, I now realize how much of my physical and emotional survival is the result of the bravery and strength of my late mother and her sister Toska. They were my models. They not only saved my life on a number of occasions, but provided me with the courage and resilience that I needed in order to survive on my own. They were very strong and fearless women, calm in hazardous situations. … My mother endangered her life in order to save some unrelated people. … My mother’s third sister, now deceased, Genia, lived most of her life in Paris, France. She also was a very courageous woman. During the war she was in the French resistance, transporting wounded fighters into hiding places.
I have been on a long, and at times, a very challenging journey, with many intermediate stops from Warsaw and Katowice, Poland to St. Petersburg Florida.
My Warsaw ghetto memories of fear, hunger, cold, persecution, and suffering the loss of my grandparents, my wife’s father, and many aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as thoughts of abandonment and loneliness outside the ghetto will always be with me.
Sometimes before going to bed or when waking up and still being half asleep, I experience a variety of flashbacks from the past. I visualize masses of people, including my beloved grandfather, other members of my family and my childhood friends from the ghetto waiting at the Warsaw Umshlagplatz to be deported to the Treblinka death camp. I shiver when I think of those very tragic times for our people.
In an incredible way, I was able to survive. I was reunited with my mother after about three years and with my father after 10 years. I lived for an extended period of time in seven countries, and spoke six languages fluently. In 1949 I went to Israel and eventually to Canada. I graduated with a Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD degrees from Mc Gill University, in Montreal, Canada. For two years I was teaching at The State University of New York. In 1966, we moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where I became a professor and eventually Head of the Department of Economics, at the University of Cincinnati, where I was for more than 40 years. …
After my retirement we moved to St. Petersburg Florida. I am fortunate to have a loving wife, two children who are happily married and four grandchildren. My sister and my brother-in-law live in Sarasota; we are blessed and very grateful for what we have.
One of the most memorable quotes by [Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor] Elie Wiesel is this: “No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of the night.” This quote resonates with my own feelings of gratitude.
The lessons from the Holocaust of our people are that in the face of evil we cannot be passive bystanders, we cannot be silent. We have to fight, protest and educate the world about genocides. They are a threat to our civilization and to humanity.
There are not too many of us left, we are the last living witnesses to the sufferings that took place in the Warsaw ghetto and in other parts of Poland and in Europe. We the children survivors have to be the spokespersons for those who were so brutally murdered. We have to raise our voices on the behalf of those who are no longer with us; we have to confront the Holocaust deniers. After us, the responsibility to educate the world about the holocaust will have to be carried out by future generations.
And we should always remember what Thomas Jefferson said: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
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