April 27, 2014 is Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary (according to the Hebrew Calendar) of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. My father, Yehuda Elberg, was part of that struggle. I present these notes of his in memory of my grandparents, siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts whose lives were destroyed in those horrible times. Although we say “Never Again,” there are many people today who feel it’s time to repeat the slaughter. After all, it wasn’t the first. Why should it be the last? (Ask the Rwandans). There was the Armenian genocide, the Trail of Tears (expulsion of the Cherokee), the Chmielniki pogroms (as vicious as the holocaust, but less technologically advanced), the slaughter of western European Jewish communities by the Crusaders, and so on.
Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate, said of my father Yehuda Elberg: “The Warsaw ghetto has finally found its novelist… This book is fashioned of material cut from the cloth of truth—of creative truth.” The following are excerpts from my father’s notes about his experiences during the Holocaust.
All photos below are of my family.
Escape Into the Warsaw Ghetto
After the first mass deportations of Jews from Warsaw, many remained in the shrunken ghetto. Despite encouraging rumors spread by German agents, we knew that the end was near. We had already received eyewitness reports from the death camps. We did not know about a firm plan for a “final solution,” but we deduced it from what we saw happening.
On January 18, 1943, SS formations surrounded the ghetto and started what was to be the final liquidation of the ghetto. When they encountered unexpected resistance, the raids petered out, and after four days, stopped. We knew the S.S. would come back, better prepared. We also had to be better prepared.
At the end of March 1943, I was entrusted with a mission to build a transfer place for people leaving Warsaw to fight in the forests- a first stop after leaving the ghetto. I found what I was looking for, and built a hideout under an isolated farmhouse surrounded by forest in Swider, where Warsaw Jews used to go during the hot summer months. Near the farmhouse were ruins of apartments for summer guests, which had burned down when the war front passed
through the area.
I went in and out of the ghetto through the Ostbahn freight terminal in Praga, a Warsaw suburb east of the Vistula River. I joined the night shift of a work-gang taken from the ghetto by a Ukrainian guard to unload coal, and brought back in the morning after the day shift arrived. I worked with the gang all night, but at daybreak sneaked out of the depot. After removing the Star of David from my arm, I was free to go wherever I needed, except that I could be shot at any time for not wearing my armband or for being outside the ghetto.
I had left Warsaw this way and returned to the terminal at dawn two weeks later. The rails of the depot stretched for miles and I knew my way around. I dirtied my hands with coal dust, put some on my face for good measure, and proceeded to the building where we usually assembled after work. It was a bright spring morning and I was in a cheerful mood. I had been successful in my mission, and some of my group would be able to leave the ghetto without any delay.
I arrived early at the place where we assembled to be led back to the ghetto, but some members of the work gang were already there. While waiting for the hot soup and a piece of bread we usually received before returning to the ghetto, I found water to wash off the coal dust. All the workers were soon assembled and four of them went to the kitchen to fetch two kettles of soup. They soon returned empty-handed. The cook was sick, we were told. A replacement had arrived late, and they would send us the soup when it’s ready.
We were willing to leave without the soup, but the group of day workers had not arrived and we were not permitted to leave before they came to take our place. This happened often, when strict guards at the ghetto gates intensively searched everyone coming or going. We did not mind the delay; hopefully the guard would change before we would arrive at the gates with the extra food in our knapsacks, bought outside the ghetto. Our escort, the Ukrainian guard, had not arrived yet, and we would have to wait for him anyhow.
How did the Ukrainian escort know that the day group would be late? I was beginning to smell a rat. I noticed that there were more than usual Ukrainian “banschutz” guards around us, and when I saw some gendarmes in German uniforms I sneaked away to an outhouse.
Every place in the area was searched. I was soon found, and chased to the group assembled in front of the building.
It was guarded by two S.S. men, one to our right with a heavy automatic gun hanging on a chain on his chest, the other to the left with only a handgun, but with a police dog at his side.
One member of our group started to run; he was immediately shot in the back. No one was allowed to check if he was dead or just wounded. The uprising must have started in the ghetto.
I knew that I had nothing to lose by trying to escape, but decided to wait for an opportune moment. Not moments, but hours passed. From time to time banschutz guards brought more of our people who had tried to hide. The day workers were finally brought in and led to our group. Now, they would take us away. If I wanted to escape, I had to try it right away.
I realized that all the exits from the depot would be guarded, so I could not run for an exit. There was a rule in the underground to know the places where we operated. I knew several escape routes and examined them with feverish thoughts. I decided to run towards the place where a brick wall separated the depot from a private backyard of a small apartment house. There were paths on each side of the depot building we were facing. Both led to the road that would take me to the brick wall. I decided to take the right side: the alertness of a police dog is more dangerous than an automatic rifle. At the edge of the building on the right side, there was a high pole carrying electric and telephone wires. I moved over to the SS man and asked permission to go over to the pole to take a leak. He nodded his approval.
I was standing facing the pole, but my eyes were turned left towards the SS man. He took out a cigarette and was trying to light it but the wind blew out the match. He lit another match between his cupped hands and bent down towards the flame. This was the moment I was waiting for. I knew that as soon as the cigarette would be lit he would lift his head, and his first glance would be towards the path. I avoided the mistake of the one who tried to escape before. I jumped to the back of the building where he couldn’t see me. Not far from the building were stocks of wooden railroad ties. I ran and hid between them, jumping from one pile to another. When there were no more… I pulled off my Jewish armband and headed toward a parked freight car that would shield me from the view of the German. I was already a distance from him but the path was still in his view and there were no more rail ties.
There was no time to lose. I turned towards the path but slowed my pace. I was walking leisurely, not running. It was already close to noon, so I tried to look like a Polish laborer on his break. I had known exactly were the brick wall was but I had never realized how much time it would take to reach it at a leisurely walk. Did the SS man realize that I had disappeared? Did he send guards to look for me? Run and arouse suspicion? No! Running was the greater risk. I had to continue walking.
I finally came close enough to see the wall, and stopped in my tracks. Two freight cars were parked opposite the wall and a couple of German soldiers were guarding them. What to do now? The soldiers probably didn’t know what the SS were doing at the depot.
I recalled seeing some bricks and a wheelbarrow with mortar not far back. A worker was probably doing repairs, and had gone for lunch. I turned back, put some mortar on my clothes and a bit on my face, put some bricks on top of the mortar, to look like a busy worker. But where was I to take it?
I decided that the brick wall needed repairs, and headed towards it with the bricks and mortar. I would make myself busy at the wall and watch for a moment when the soldiers would look the other way. If they’d see me escape, they would probably take me for a saboteur and shoot.
Horses, probably on the way to the Russian front, were in the freight cars, but as soon as I started to work at the wall, the soldiers’ attention turned towards me. I realized that I would have to be on top of the wall to find a chance to jump. It was a low wall, and I decided to make it higher. I put all the bricks on the top of the wall, and used the trowel to bring up some mortar. The soldiers laughed “Polnishe arbeit, the Polish way of doing work.” I got to the top of the wall and waited for them to get bored watching me and turn back to the horses. I prayed for a fire to break out, I hoped a horse would go crazy; anything to draw their attention away from me. Suddenly I realized that while my jumping to the other side would arouse their suspicions, falling down to the other side would appear to them as clumsiness. I took a “wrong” step and fell down on the other side; the Germans roared with laughter.
I too would have been inclined to laugh, but I had fallen on my right knee. I tried to get up; the pain was excruciating. “Don’t pamper yourself!” I shouted at myself silently. “You’ll get up, or give up altogether.”
The Germans were still giggling on the other side when I managed to get on my feet and limp to the street.
I was limping my way to the main street when someone grabbed my arm. It was Leibel, a Hasidic young man who had recently joined the work gang. It gave him the opportunity to buy food outside the ghetto, where it was much cheaper. He had sneaked out to a store, but before he left the store, someone brought the news that the Germans had surrounded the freight depot. “I know you have contacts,” he pleaded. “Help me.”
This wasn’t the first time he had turned to me for help. He had cut off his beard and his sidelocks, and was wearing modern clothes, but he still looked the Hasid that he was. One needs to have guts to smuggle; he was cowardly and often got into trouble. I had tried to protect him as much as I could.
Once he devised a clever way to smuggle without risk. There was a shortage of leather: shoes were terribly expensive, boots were a small fortune, and “officer style” boots with high, stiff bootlegs were a large fortune. Leibel would leave the ghetto in officer’s boots, carrying his slippers in his knapsack. After he would arrive at the depot, he pulled off the boots to sell them, and put on the slippers. I complimented him for the good idea, but later I found him crying bitterly: a Polish worker took the boots “to show” to a buyer, and refused to return them or pay for them.
I rushed to the place where the Polish workers assembled, and got the help of others to shame the culprit to return the boots. Returning the boots, he threatened me: “I’ll get you, dirty Jew, one day I’ll get you and you will pay for this!”
I told Leibel that I would take him to a safe place, but he had to stop shouting, wipe the sweat off his face, and talk to me in Polish only. In his panic, he mixed in Yiddish words, and sweat was pouring from every pore of his body. “…And let go of my arm,” I hissed.
For a minute he staggered beside me quietly, but soon grabbed my arm and started to talk in agitation, again in Yiddish.
“Leibel, get hold of yourself or we will both be lost” I begged him. There is an ironclad rule for people like us not to walk together; if either of us would be recognized as a Jew, we would both lose our lives. “I’ll walk ahead of you and lead the way, you follow behind me.” I rushed a few steps ahead, but he soon caught up with me.
“Are you trying to run away from me?” he asked.
“I am trying to take you out of Warsaw, walk towards the train to Otwock. I’ll be right behind you.”
He didn’t trust me: “No, you walk ahead and I’ll be able to see you.”
He walked behind me for a while, then ran over and grabbed me again. The inevitable happened. A “shmaltzovnik,” a blackmailer soon joined us and demanded money. We paid him off and managed to get away from him. He must have been an amateur, as the professionals took whatever you had, then followed you to get your address.
Leibel stopped talking but was still holding on to my arm. The sweat flowed from his face more profusely.
When we reached the major thoroughfare Targowa Street, Leibel became a bit more composed. He stopped at the entrance to a large apartment complex and told me that he had a contact there. He made me promise that I would not follow him to see the exact address, and that I would wait for him in the gateway. If he wouldn’t return after a full hour, it would mean that his acquaintance had agreed to hide him, and I would be free to go.
I did wait for him for about half an hour, when the realization hit me that if he would come back now and behave like he did before, we would both be doomed. I went out to the street and jumped onto the stairs of a running tramway. I headed for Grochow, the terminal for the train back to the hiding place I had built in Swider. Waiting for the train, I noticed that the blackmailer was arriving at the station. Was he travelling in the same direction, or had Leibel blabbered about us going to Otwock, and I was too tense to hear it?
I played hide and seek with the pursuer, then jumped on the train when it was already moving. I was glad that I had managed to leave the blackmailer behind.
Then it occurred to me: I had no right to leave Warsaw when all my comrades remained in the ghetto. Since they didn’t know the location of the transfer place, I was their only hope to get out. I got off the train at the next station, and headed back to Warsaw on foot.
I had a Polish contact, the Sobotka family on Freta St. 40, not far from the ghetto walls. I went there to wait till late afternoon, when the workers return to the ghetto. The guards at the gate were more numerous than usual, and were heavily armed. No groups returned; no groups left for the night shift. I spent the night at the Sobotkas, and tried again the next day, in vain. By the evening of April 18th, the ghetto was surrounded. I wanted to be with my group, and decided to try entering over the wall separating the back yard of a tannery from the ghetto. Though I had never used this route myself, I knew all about it from my colleagues who had.
I sneaked into the tannery yard, and locked myself in an outhouse to wait until it was completely dark. In the light of
the full moon, I could not see details, but I clearly saw objects and the silhouettes of people. I waited until there was no one in the yard. All except two of the lights in the windows of buildings were off. I waited for the last lights to go out and headed for the wall. Coming closer I heard motion, and whispers from the other side. I was trying to get in; were they trying to get out? I carefully and silently moved away from the wall. I did not want to scare them away. From the ghetto side a couple of heads rose over the wall, they were trying to escape. Suddenly there was a commotion in the tannery yard. Guards ran in. As far as I could tell, they were Polish policemen. Shots rang out; I didn’t know from where. I lowered myself to the ground and tried to move on my belly towards the pond where the skins were usually soaked in water and chemicals. I bent my knees to immerse in the slimy water to dirty my face and blond hair, and then lifted my head enough to keep my nose above the water, and breath. I saw little, and heard less; if part of my ears were above the water, they were filled with slime. There was shooting and two bodies were carried away; I don’t know if they were “our” or “their” casualties. I slipped in the slimy pond, and went completely under water, not knowing if anyone heard the splash.
How long did it take? To me an eternity passed until everything quieted down, and I was able to climb out of the pond. I was sure that the complex was guarded from the outside, and maybe from the windows of the building. I sneaked back to the outhouse, and locked myself inside. I was terribly exhausted, and couldn’t think what to do next. It was the third night that I hadn’t had any sleep, and I fell asleep or fainted. I came to when the yard was bathed in daylight. The outhouse door was open. A man was shaking me and whispering to me in Polish: “Don’t be afraid of me, lock yourself inside. I will try to help you. I’ll be back.”
He did come back a little bit later, and brought me a wet rag to wash the dirt off my face and head. The slime had started to dry on my clothes. The man gave me a pair of pants and a sweater, and again promised “I’ll be back”.
At the end of the day when the workers left the factory, I walked between them. They surrounded me to block anybody’s view. I looked like dried dirt and smelled like a rotten corpse. I went back to the Sobotka’s where I cleaned and washed myself properly. I felt no joy at being saved, but rather despair at not being able to help my colleagues. I don’t remember whether I thanked my benefactors properly.
I had to go to Warsaw. I chose a late Sunday afternoon when there was less chance of getting snared in a German raid to catch men for slave labor. When I arrived at Franciskanska Street, it was dusk. With no streetlights, and the compulsory black shades on all the windows, visibility was poor. I was only two short blocks from my destination at Freta Street, when I realized that I had walked into a trap.
On Franciskanska, at the corner of Kozhla, were heavily armed German gendarmes. Two blocked the entrance to the intersection; two more blocked it from the other side. In the center two more conducted body searches, and checked the all the papers of everyone who happened by.
I had passed the first pair, and was ordered to stop. There was no way to escape: as soon as they would finish with the man near them, they would order “Hande houch,” “raise your hands.” I didn’t have illegal papers with me. In fact, I had no papers at all. With no documents, I knew that I would be end up in Paviak jail, or in the hands of the Gestapo. Either way, they would discover I’m Jewish. They wouldn’t kill me right away. They would first interrogate and torture me: where am I coming from, where am I going, whom am I with? If I had had a gun with me I would have shot at them, leaving the last bullet for myself.
They finished with the man before me, and let him go. At this moment a couple strolled in from Kozhla Street, and in the poor light of dusk, accidentally walked right into the German interrogators. The Germans turned to them, and I walked around and kept going. The gendarmes guarding the exit from the intersection either didn’t see me, or presumed that had already been checked, and let me pass.
I was sure that I’d be stopped at the next corner, but there were no Germans there. The entrance to Freta 40, where
my contacts the Sobotkas lived, was open and not guarded. I crossed the yard to the entrance leading to their apartment. I started to calm down: three flights up and I would be with my friends.
I rang the Sobotka’s bell; I knocked on the door… no answer. I knocked harder, but soon realized that this could be heard by a neighbor, and might bring trouble. Because of the fear of the neighbors’ suspicion, I decided not to wait for the Sobotkas at their door. I went downstairs, to wait for them outside.
But now I started to panic. If the Germans had blocked one corner off this neighborhood, they’re bound to move to the other corners. I couldn’t stay in the courtyard, for if the janitor saw a stranger in the yard he would get suspicious; most janitors were informers. “The fate of all Jews has caught up with me,” I thought. “I won’t get out of this trap, I am doomed!”
I harnessed all my will power to calm down. I decided not to leave the Freta 40 complex, but I couldn’t stay at one place. So I walked up and down the stairs in each and every entrance, and there were many entrances. The Warsaw apartment house complexes were built as boxes around a large yard. There could be eight or more entrances, each with separate staircases. I kept on walking the stairs and kept coming back to the Sobotka door. With the wartime blackened windows, looking up to their window didn’t give me any due. I rang their doorbell again and again. If anything had happened to the Sobotkas, if they had left Warsaw for the weekend and would not return for the night I’d be doomed. It was too late to leave town. What was there to do?
When I came to the door again and heard voices from inside, I felt a surge of relief. My strength wafted out of me like smoke up a chimney. I leaned on the door, and when they opened it, I nearly tumbled over.
When I woke up the next morning, I was still weak and drained. I left Warsaw, to return the following Sunday.
This time I left for Warsaw early in the morning. I returned to Franciskanska Street, on my way to Freta 40. Suddenly someone grabbed me by the arm. I thought it was a blackmailer wanting money, but he soon reminded me who he was: the Polish worker at the railroad depot whom I forced to return a pair of boots he took away from a Jew. No, he didn’t want money (I had none to give him anyhow). He wanted revenge, and made it clear in a load shout that he was taking me to the Gestapo.
“What are you shouting about,” I asked him. “I’m going with you, aren’t I?” It was urgent that I quiet him down. If a crowd would have gathered around us, it would have been hopeless for me.
“I told you I’d get you. Leave it to Wacek, this is the end of you.”
I didn’t answer him, nor did I believe that it was the “end of me.” I didn’t feel any panic, but was able to talk softly, and think. Was there a way out? I couldn’t try to run away from him; the chase would attract blackmailers and Germans. The street bordering the burned ghetto was empty, but the commotion he would make would bring people out of their houses. Besides, the burly, well-fed hooligan would be able to run faster than me, with ankles swollen from hunger. But there must be a way out!
I was thinking so intensely that I felt the blood vessels straining as if they were going to burst. Suddenly, I started to laugh. Wacek stopped in his tracks. “What is so funny, Zhyd parchaty,” cankerous Jew?
I laughed even louder. “Did you lose your marbles, Zhid? The dogs will soon feed on your carcass.”
“That’s what you think,” I finally answered. “We’ll soon see who will get the bullet.”
“You work for the Germans?” he asked with a shaky voice. “You will soon know for whom I work.” “You’re not with the underground?” he panicked. The Jewish underground had sentenced to death and executed two shmaltsovnics a couple of weeks earlier.
“I am on a mission and I am not alone. The two behind me are watching and will soon get you.”
I was trying to laugh again, but choked on the last word. What had gotten into me? Why did I say “two?” If one or three would show up it wouldn’t be good enough.
He turned his head to look who was behind us. I also turned around, and my knees buckled: the street was still empty. Suddenly we heard voices, voices of men talking, and four came out of a house entrance. I was searching for an explanation of why there were four and not two, and turned towards my tormentor. He wasn’t there anymore; he had disappeared as if he had sunk into the ground.