A Jew Among the Germans
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photo of marian being interviewedphoto of marian going to berlin by train

an interview with marian marzynski
This interview was conducted by the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, a nonprofit organization set up to collect and preserve the testimonies of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses; Marzynski's is one of nearly 52,000 videotaped testimonies gathered from 56 countries. In this excerpt he describes his memories as a five year-old child, how he survived the Nazis' mass murder of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto -- and how 90 percent of his family did not.

Tell me about something from your father, what do you know about his physical appearance?

… He loved candies and had a habit of buying sweets and bringing them to people and also buying flowers. He was a very elegant and charming man. Little chubby and humorous.

What sort of work did your father do?

He actually did three lines of study at the same time: He studied journalism, he studied commerce, and then he studied engineering. …

… He saw a war on the horizon, and he saw anti-Semitism, and he knew that I would be living in a country where only Jews are circumcised, and he definitely wanted me -- in 1937, two years before the war -- not to have a sign of Jewishness. And indeed, I am probably sitting here because of that -- not being circumcised. …

If you were to think hard, what sort of memories do you have of your father?

… Being in the child carriage and being carried by somebody very fast, almost running through the street of Warsaw, and hearing the alarm of sirens and also in our courtyard in our room had to cover the windows when the German planes were coming. The janitor would look around the windows and would remind everybody to put the stores on, and I remember the voice, Panie Kuszner, Firanki!, which means, "Mr. Kushner your stores are not on." …

I had a feeling that something dramatic, tragic is going on. I had a feeling of those planes, that somebody is killing someone. But of course you don't know who is killing who at this age. But also, you have a feeling of running away, of running and running and running.

… It's mainly the feeling of bodies and legs and shoes and Germans and dogs and shouts -- it's really very fragmented -- and the hours and waiting and waiting and fear and fear. You see, I was part of a dangerous game, and I knew that it will be the moment of joy in the house, and then a new danger will come. The anticipation of danger -- that's what I learned, and until today it's in me. I always know that the danger will come, and I am ready to face it. …

[What do you remember about your mother?]

… I remember her ear. Ever since I can remember, my way of being safe and secure was holding her ear, and that was at times extremely annoying to my mother. But I remember this ear of my mother ever since I remember -- and certainly during the ghetto in the worst times. That was my sense of safety was when I could hold her ear.

What do you know of your father's parents?

My grandfather -- my father's father's name was Moshe, Mordechai Kushner -- and he was a dentist in the shtetl or town of Leczyca. He was educated in the medical school in Saratov, Russia.

My grandfather was killed almost the day the Germans invaded Leczyca, and they point out that he was the wealthy Jew who has gold. He was a dentist, and of course he had gold, gold teeth. He was killed on the market square, and his wife died of a heart attack in two weeks. They were the very first casualty of the Holocaust.

… Probably at the age of four or maybe three, I had an infection on my eye, and one of my uncles was an eye doctor. And he didn't have anesthetics, and in order to cut here without anesthetics, about ten people or more with my family hold me, literally, with everything they could hold. And I remember this pain was unbelievable, and my screaming was unbelievable, and ever since, I got a reputation of a totally uncontrollable child. My scream was such that everybody was certain that this child, with this ability to scream, we'll never be able to save or to be silent.

… We were always spared because my father, being the head of the woodworking shop, had this passport for life for his immediate family. In the beginning it included the large family, and then only smaller family, but as a result, my grandmother was taken to Umschlagplatz from where they were taken to concentration camp. And my great-grandmother went actually mad almost after that, after that happened. The next day she left the apartment and went herself and asked the German to be sent to the concentration camp. That's how my grandmother and great-grandmother were killed during those blockades when we were saved. Then the sister of my uncle with a little child, Henry, was taken. Then everybody was taken gradually, and then at one point we stayed, just the three of us, my mother, my father. …

… My father was told by the German owner that actually in the next few days there would be a blockade, and all children will be taken to the concentration camp -- all. Then the decision was made of smuggling me, sending me out to the Christian side of Warsaw. …

… My father and my mother were coaching me almost as a soldier because they knew that I had to. And they were whispering to me, "You will survive if you keep your mouth shut. Remember, you will never tell anybody that you are a Jew." …

… The plan was that a woman who is professionally smuggling children will come to my house and take me with her.

… She had some arrangements with some Germans at the gate of the ghetto who would pretend that they are not noticing her, because she carried a lot of children with her. For a Christian woman carrying a child, it was not that dangerous as for the Jewish grownups leaving the ghetto. I know one thing that this woman was given by my mother three gold watches. These watches were not for her, or maybe one was for her, but I know that they were mainly for people that will be blackmailing her after she leaves the ghetto. …

… When we left the gate of the ghetto, which I recall as pretty uneventful, then we were stopped by a small group of people, and then I knew that something went wrong, and those people were asking for money. And those people were blackmailing us to bring us to Gestapo, and this woman was told that she is carrying a Jewish child. And this woman's routine was always the same, and she did this at this time: She called the Polish police -- Granatowy -- policeman, navy blue policemen is what they were called. They had these uniforms, and he already knew, too, that we are in the hand of the criminals, and the only way for them to make money is to arrest us, and that's what happened. …

… We took the horse wagon, and then the scene of me being a terrible screaming child was repeated again. I gave a concert of screaming, and this woman was holding my hand and my mouth, and I was screaming: "I want to go back to ghetto. I want to go to mommy," those were the words. And of course, she was holding my mouth. The policeman was also helping her, so I failed the first task of conspiracy. However, we were able to go to the police station, and at the police station we were put in the jail, but the woman contacted the head of the station who knew that one of the watches would be for him. The first one was for the one who brought us, the second one for him. And he would keep us in the jail 'til the end of the day, and that is what I remember -- sitting among the prostitutes and the people that were loud. And I also remember that they were giving me a piece of bread with sugar -- that's what we call the sugar sandwich. The sugar sandwich was the biggest delicacy for a child at this time, so I had a very good treatment in this jail, and the woman said, "Don't worry we will be here 'til the end, and everything will be fine, and you will see your aunt."

… The story of my mother leaving the ghetto was much more dramatic, because my uncle was in charge of solving the situation, and my uncle, who was fluent in German, decided to solve the situation of being blackmailed, by directly posing as a Gestapo agent himself, by actually threatening the blackmailers that he will make them arrested by the Gestapo for criminal activity. …

… I had to be somebody else now; I had to have a Catholic birth certificate. …

… We decided that we have to be baptized, and during these few days or maybe weeks when we were in this house, the priest came, and then my mother and I kneeled on the floor, and we were baptized together, and the reason was that this way we could obtain false papers. …

… When I was with my mother, it was clear that I will be too loud, that I will be too visible, that there is no way that the two of us can survive together, that we have to go completely different paths. And during this time there were attempts to place me in many, many Christian families. Altogether I was in the hands of 17 families, and most of those families were paid. There was a business going on in Warsaw, that poor people that could not support themselves actually treated hiding Jews as a business. They run a little pension, or my mother has from my grandfather the dentist a little sack with the gold and platinum teeth, and in some cases she would be paying with those teeth. …

… It became so difficult that at one point I was on the balcony, and I saw someone walking and saying "dirty Jew." And then I talked back to him: "I am a Jew, and that's what takes me to the ghetto." I broke my conspiracy. And I was told by someone, immediately we have to leave their apartment because the danger of Gestapo coming and taking all of us was too big. …

… And the way to save me is that I would have to be abandoned on the street of Warsaw in order to lose completely my identity. And being not circumcised, whoever will find me will treat me as an abandoned Polish orphan. And they were able to contact a man who was in charge of the organization that runs several orphanages in Poland and had an office, and there was a courtyard in the front of this office. And the idea was that the man who was in charge of this office will be in cahoots with this operation and will know the child will be left, and whose child it is. And this child, after being left, will be picked up by one of his employees there and will be taken to the office then placed in an orphanage, and he will know in which orphanage I will be placed, and then my mother will know where I am.

… And that's what she did; she brought me to this courtyard of this building. She put a cardboard around my neck: "My name is Marys [this is the diminutive of Marian]. My parents are dead." She gave me this brown bag with this sugar sandwich -- another sugar sandwich, I remember -- to appease me. And she left me in the middle of this courtyard and said, "You must stay there. This is the only way that you will be alive, if you'll stay there. Please stay, please stay. Somebody will come to you and will be with you. I know this person. I will be in touch with this person. I will be watching you. You must stay there."

… I was five years plus, maybe five years old, and I stayed there, and I didn't move.

So for your mother…

My mother would go away.

… You remember her?

I remember her leaving, absolutely, going away and me staying. And she convinced me. And this sugar sandwich was a good bribe. I love this sugar sandwich. And I believed her. Somehow I was ready to do it this time. Somehow I felt, this is it. …

Was this in morning, evening, daylight?

Daylight, in morning.

… How long did you stay there before someone --

… I do not remember, but I don't think such a long time. I remember somebody approached me very soon, and then I found myself in a basement. And I remember that I was suddenly in a basement in the company of small children and a woman and a man. And I know that they were very good to me, and only later I learned who they were. He was a janitor of the building; he was the one that noticed me first. Before anyone from the organization would notice me. And he took me to his basement, and because I disappeared from the view from the courtyard, then obviously the people working there could never -- they didn't notice any child in the courtyard. Simple, because it probably took no time for the janitor to take me. So when my mother learned that no child was found in the courtyard, my mother was absolutely sure that the operation failed completely, that I was arrested, taken, I was gone, end -- no continuity.

… And the first thing I remember is that the man smells heavy like alcohol, and he is definitely drunk. Then I remember continuous fights between his wife and him. …

And I remember being sandwiched between him and his wife, holding him. I somehow had a power over him. I can only rationalize after all the years that the way that I looked, that I was from a different family, that he found me on the street, that I was his dream child that he didn't have there.

… And I felt so comfortable with him, so good I started slowly -- not telling him that I am a Jew, I never told him this -- I told him that I had family in Warsaw, and I was telling stories that the children sometimes tell: I am from wealthy family; I have a lot of family; I was here and there. I knew that I can tell him this but not the other thing. So the idea was that he somehow thought I was lost, someone was taken by Germans, was there I didn't know. "My mother brought me here." "Where is your mother?" "I don't know where my mother is, but I know some of the people that I was with." And I gave him the first address. How I knew the address, I have no idea. But I gave him the first address.

The address--

The address of one of those 17 families. Actually, it happened to be the house of my uncle's brother, who I spent some days with, too. And in one Sunday he was able to go with me and knock the door, and I saw the uncle. And the man asked the uncle, "Do you know this boy?" And the uncle said, "I don't know this boy." And I was not sure at this time, if I know this uncle because, of course, I spent only a few days with this man. The idea was that it was too dangerous for the uncle to take me.

I told him that I also remember another house, and this house is an apartment of a priest. … And the maid opened the door, and said "I know Marys. I know this boy. You can leave him here." And he left me there, and he disappeared. I found myself now in her home. And what I learned later was that she had witnessed a miracle in the church, that the Virgin Mary told her, "You must rescue a little child." And ever since, she thought that she made a big mistake of returning me. So when she saw me now, and at this point I had my papers with me already, she asked the priest if it would be okay with him, and he said yes. …

My mother was notified that I was there. …

… I remember being all the time with the maid in the maid room, but I also remember being on the street this time and walking with her, and I remember running in the tramway one time, and encountering a German officer that would put me on his knees, and say, "Good boy, good boy." I was scared, tremendously scared, but somehow I felt that again, we are winning this whole thing. …

… One of the things that I imitated from the priest and from going to church was the signs of the cross which was like a blessing, and it was also like miracles making. And I remember standing on the floor of Krakowskie Prezedmiescie behind the curtains, seeing the cars and people and Germans walking and knowing this is the world that is dangerous to me. But when I found a person that I liked, I would face this person, and I would do that -- I would be blessing this person to make miracles. And in a sense I started to behave like a priest. And this kind of priesthood which I put my mind in would gave me a power and safety and security.

… At one point I was taken by the maid 25 kilometers from Warsaw to an orphanage that was run by the priest who was [a member of] the brothers of the order called Orione.

We saw smoke over the sky of Warsaw; we were only 20 kilometers [away]. And I recall peasants and other people gathering there and saying zydki sie pala, "the Jews are burning." And that moment when I acknowledge that they were talking about the Jews, and then I had the moment of realizing that my father was there, that this is ghetto, that my mother is someplace else hiding, and that I am here.

… I remember being shown naked to some of the brothers because there was always this entry for me, this identity card, this assurance to this establishment that in case the Germans come, they can prove that I am not Jewish.

I was already baptized before with my mother, but I was also at the age of six, I had to pass the saint communion, the holy communion, which is an end of religious education. Then I passed wonderfully the exam to be the alter boy, and knowing in Latin absolutely the whole text of the ritual of serving the mass, which included assisting the church in pouring the water and the wine, and ringing the bells. …

And the chapel was used whenever Germans were around, probably buying some goods or being around. I was always taken by one of the brothers to the chapel, and I was hiding, either by serving the mass or sometimes behind the alter.

… I went to Warsaw one time to the big cathedral and was brought to a ceremony of the benediction of the new catholic priest. And it's done in an extremely theatrical way: When the candidates for priesthood are in the white robes, and they lay on the floor like cross for a long a time. And I will always have this in my mind, that was the time when I decided that I will be a priest. …

In 1944 around August, suddenly we see the German troops coming to the orphanage.

… They were giving us chocolate. We were not afraid of the Germans. We were told by the priests and the sisters that they are losing the war.

… My mother doesn't know exactly where I am. She knows I am in an orphanage, but for some reason she cannot get in touch with the priest.

… She walks about 60 kilometers on foot, actually going to first one or two wrong places where I was not there.

I was kneeling in the dining room above the table in my old fur coat from before the war, and I see that a stranger, a woman, comes to the room. And this woman is old and ugly -- well, old at least -- and she approaches me. I don't know who she is. She says "Marys," and I said, "I don't know you, ma'am." And she says, "Marys," and I said, "I don't know you. I don't know who you are." "I am your mother." I said, "I don't know you, ma'am. I don't kow who you are." And then she starts to tell me about what I remember from the past, and she mentioned one name which is Ciocia Frania -- the aunt, Frania, Frances -- her sister. And I said, "I remember Ciocia Frania." "You see Ciocia Frania," -- the aunt -- "is my sister, and I am your mother." "Yes, I remember Ciocia Francia, but I don't remember you." She says, "I am your mother. I would like to take you to Warsaw to live with me." …

I think the recognition of my mother came through touching her ear. I think that her body, her smell, gave me the sudden realization that yes, she is my mother.

And we went together to a bus or train station, or maybe we went all through Warsaw in the horse wagon.

Did your father survive the Holocaust?

No.

How did you find out about the immediate causes of the events that lead to his death? Did your mother tell you?

Yes.

Could you tell us a bit about that -- we are going ahead -- but could you tell us what your mother told you?

Sure. My father stayed in the ghetto, being head of the shop for the Germans, and having this so-called passport for life, being able to survive longer than anybody else, but he decided not to leave the ghetto, unlike me and my mother, and stayed to the end. It is not clear to me if he left the ghetto before or after the insurrections of the Warsaw ghetto, but it is certain he was taken on one of the last transports from the ghetto, and he was taken to the concentration camp of Majdanek near Lublin. And it's certain, because he told my mother, that he and my brother who was with him, cut the hole in the floor of the wagon and then they jumped. …

… He joined the partisans and met my mother two times actually in the little barn or the little shack there, and clearly was part of the partisans, probably Soviet partisans or maybe Polish. And then at the last meeting, when my mother left him for the last time and heard the shots in the train, everybody was telling around that the Ukrainian units of the German army were penetrating forests and would kill partisans -- were actually surrounding the forest. And my mother never had any more contact. So we assume that he died in 1943, in the forest, in this area.

 

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posted may 31, 2005

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