Maja Hrabowska: “My Life In Hiding”

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Maja Hrabowska is a member of the generation of children that survived the Holocaust. “The past is always with me,” she writes. “It has long, cold fingers, and catches me unprepared, at night mostly, when I wake up in sweat.”

The past is always with me. It has long, cold fingers, and catches me unprepared, at night mostly, when I wake up in sweat. I’m part of the generation that survived the Holocaust — the total war on Jews, and particularly on Jewish children. We were hated, the first to suffer, the first to perish. I blamed myself. What did I do to deserve it?

At that time we didn’t understand the extent of horror of this the most hideous crime in history. We were looking at this as an isolated drama, which for some unknown reason befell us. For years we tried to retain sanity by silencing the scream, by hiding our memories deep in subconsciousness, and for some time it worked. We knew something that others didn’t, and this secret was with us only; we carried this burden alone. The war was over, but we were different from other young people, quieter, more careful whom we talk to, feeling still unsafe.

Many years passed, and now unexpectedly I found that there are others with similar pasts, and hidden memories. It was a shock; it was as if I found the family I missed so much. It doesn’t matter that not everybody is pretty and speaking nicely — the family can have its differences.

Thanks to this group I finally found the courage to speak of my past, which was a shock by itself, because up to now I was enveloped in silence. I decided that it would be selfish not to speak; that my family, which disappeared by Hitler’s bloody hands, deserves some legacy, and I am the only one left to remember. I can’t afford to stay silent, the time is pressing.

One of my most terrible wartime experiences was our short stay in the Umschlagplatz – the assembly point in the Warsaw ghetto for people waiting to be sent to the Treblinka 2 death camp. Under the German occupation there were two types of camps: concentration camps, such as Auschwitz, where not everybody died, and by miracle one could survive the hardship, and the other type — death camps, where nobody was meant to survive. Gas chambers were the only facilities there. People from the Warsaw ghetto were destined to this type of camp.

It was during that hot summer of 1942. The action in the Warsaw ghetto was proceeding/in progress. “Action” — this word will haunt me forever; it has a special meaning for these, who were there. I remember thinking with envy of G. Wells’ “Invisible Man” and fantasying of remaining invisible, and not just hidden in the cellar, a hole in the ground, under the bed, in the closet, or behind the furniture.

From the beginning of the “Action” my family worked hard to find the shelter, even while not knowing at first the final destination of cattle trains leaving daily the “Umschlagplatz” on Stawki Street. Day after day the Germans were carrying the brutal, human hunting, combing block after block for the whole month. The action was proceeding with a lot of shouting, screaming, beating the helpless, firing at them, and using all kind of abuse by the uniformed German troops. Even surviving the first wave, it left us frightened and terrorized.

For simplicity, I am using the term “Germans” because any other name doesn’t sound adequate, even if I know, that there were not only Nazis there. Latvians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and representatives of other nations participated enthusiastically in the ghetto liquidation, and behaved even more brutally during the mass killing. There were many nations, which collaborated with Nazis, and even more of these, who refused to help, and remained unmoved in view of this tragedy.

From the start of the “Action” our small, family group: mama and I, my grandparents, and my aunt Ania Szlajfsztajn with 6-year-old Lenka, moved several times, because our first temporary home at 26 Zamenhoff Street was searched a couple of times, and left deserted. Those who were not successfully hidden were taken to the “Umschlagplatz” and perished.

My immediate family was then still intact. In the apartment on the Zamenhoff Street, where we spent the previous two years, there were many more people; the ghetto was crowded, and the average was 13 persons per room. We didn’t know them, and they disappeared at the beginning of the “Action”.

I don’t remember any of them. In each house we moved into, the first thing to do was to find the hiding place, an attic, or cellar, or some wall closet, which we could disguise. The ghetto — so crowded not long time ago — was almost empty; houses were abandoned, apartment doors wide open. In succeeding rooms we entered there was still food on the table, clothing and toys around, not made beds. Tenants disappeared, probably already gassed in Treblinka. We slept in crumpled beds, hugging each other. But this time our luck ran out. Shortly after we moved in, the next round up began, and our hiding place in the attic was discovered.

Together with hundreds of other people from this, and neighboring buildings, we were assembled on the street. Some people carried their possessions in valises or bundles, but most of us (like our family) lost everything during previous escapes, and were clinging together. Mothers carried children; our hope for survival was dim. The long procession was formed, and with accompanying shouts and screams of the Germans we were led to the Umschlagplatz, a couple of streets ahead. Of course we heard about this place, but curiously, didn’t know what to expect.

We entered the hell. If the ghetto during the “Action” was the vestibule of hell — this place was the hell itself. When our group entered, the loading of cattle wagons was in full swing. The long lines were formed in the yard, with the Germans running around.

Hundreds of people were pushed into the railcars, and those who were not fast enough were beaten, or shot. Screams of mothers who lost their children in the melee, wailing/moaning of injured or dying, shouting, and sounds of rifles firing blindly into the crowd by black uniformed guards, filled the court with inhuman noises. Jewish policemen participated in this action, under the German guidance, pushing people and creating the incessant terror.

It was already the late afternoon, and the last train was full; the Germans exceeded their daily quota for this day. We were the last in the long line waiting for our turn. But the train could not accommodate more people, even with all those pushing. At last some guard came to our group and told us to enter the nearby building (I believe that it was originally a hospital), and wait overnight for tomorrow’s train.

The last train left leaving on the platform dead and dying people. I heard horrifying screams. Blood was flowing so profusely, that it was pouring into the building. The corpses were brought in, to be later removed for sanitary reason. The German guards were laughing obviously excited by so fine attraction. Some of them went looking for food, some started to escort the remaining group to the building.

We entered the big, empty hall, and sat in the corner. There were some rags on the floor, and Granny and my mom hid the children, Lenka and me, under the rags in the corner.

After the scenes we just witnessed, we were desperate and terribly frightened. We expected some period of quiet, but the group of Germans entered the building looking for more fun. In one of the corners there was a group of about 20 people, mostly women with small children. The Germans approached them, and picked out the children from their mothers’ arms. They pushed the screaming children against the wall, and began shooting randomly at them. Women went hysterical, screaming, and shouting, and trying to reach their children. They were brutally pushed back by Jewish policemen. Several children were lying in the pool of blood, others were screaming shrilly. We looked at this scene with horror. At last the laughing guards left, leaving behind this terrible scene on the floor: blood, parts of the flesh, dead children, and screaming mothers.

Everything went quiet; it was late, and we expected it to be our last night. Suddenly aunt Ania shouted: “Max, Max!” She saw her estranged husband Max Szlajfsztajn, whom she divorced in Wloclawek just before the war, because of his cruelty. We didn’t see him in years. Now he was moving freely around, dressed in policeman uniform, obviously serving in the Umschlagplatz unit.

Six-year-old little Lenka was his daughter. Max saw us, and realized immediately the danger we were in. He told us not to move, and stay there, and he went away to find the way out. Deep into the night he came again, and ordered us to follow him. We went through the cellar/basement to the back door and Max took out the key.

We almost made it when, suddenly, another Jewish policeman of higher position appeared. He started to shout at Max trying to push us back into the main floor. I don’t exactly remember what happened next. The other policeman threatened Max, that he would remove him from the force for insubordination, and would send him with the next transport.

I believe that my grandmother, or maybe Max, bribed this policeman with some money, or the ring, and he finally left. Max quietly opened the back door leading to the deserted street and let us out. The ordeal was over.

We were completely exhausted and half conscious after the scenes we witnessed. Our problem was not finished, and we could be shot at any time on the ghetto streets during curfew at night. Somehow we were not afraid. Quick and possibly painless death looked good. Anyway, after a short walk we found an abandoned house, where we spent the rest of the night. I don’t remember how we survived the next couple of days.

The “Action” in the ghetto was suspended shortly after our miraculous escape. However, this time we knew what was awaiting us/planned for us, and we just lived from day to day. We started to work in the factory Shopa Shultza on Leszno Street, where we sew German uniforms. We were hoping for some documents which could exclude us from deportation. We all were working there, even Lenka. During control visits we were hidden in the cellar under the stock of fabrics. It was a dark room; I don’t remember much more. Other people working there were all young; elderly and children mostly disappeared. We used/took food and clothes from deserted apartments, but most of the time we were hungry.

The ghetto was sealed tight, but obviously some contact with the outside world existed. One day we got a letter from my father, who was living in hiding on the “Aryan” side of the wall. Before the war he was active in the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), and his friends from these circles helped him to hide. Father found out that we were still alive, and started organizing for us a place to stay with his Polish friends. Mama didn’t want to leave her mother, and sister in the ghetto, but she realized that it could be our only chance for survival. She planned that with the help of the Polish friends she could later organize an escape for the rest of the family.

The big problem was how to cross the over 6-f00t tall, brick wall surrounding the ghetto. All the gates were guarded, and we were trapped inside. We tried our escape three times, but we were spotted and turned back. During the third try I lost my mother, who was shot by a black-uniformed guard. I lost the rest of my family too, because without my mother I was unable to organize the escape for them. They all died during the final ghetto’s liquidation, at the ghetto uprising, in April 1943.

After my mother was shot I came back to my family and I told what happened. My Granny was devastated. She already learned about the fate of her son Benek Berglau, who was killed in Wloclawek around the same time. His wife Mania and two of his daughters (Judyta and Stella) were sent to Treblinka. His older daughter Niunia tried to escape to Russia, but later was caught near the east border and shot in the forest.

My dearest aunt Ania told me that from now on she would be my mother. We never recovered my mother’s body. The next day my grandma contacted the truck driver commuting between the ghetto and the Aryan side, and organized my transfer with me hidden under some rags at the back of the truck.

I don’t remember the last/hasty farewell. I felt suffocated with all the stuff over me, then I heard the German guards’ voices, and at last I was standing in the entrance of the apartment house. There were people on the street, walking, talking; everything looked strange. The woman was waiting for me, and we entered the apartment, where my father was waiting. He asked about mama. It was the only time in my life when I saw him crying, after I told him what happened. I was placed with some worker’s family, where I spent the next couple of months. My life in hiding began.

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