Personal Reflections - In Ghettos/Camps
HELEN SCHWARTZ'S STORY....
A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR
Recounted by Helen Schwartz
Written by Marnie and Rena Schwartz
Edited by Susan Schwartz
Copyright October 1998
Born on May 4, 1925 in Bialistock, Poland, I was the oldest of three children born to Zelick and Malki Rogowsky. My father, Zelick, was a big tall man with wavy, beautiful hair. My mother, Malki, was small and short, just like me. When I reached my teens, we looked like two sisters. My one brother, Shaye, was eighteen months younger than me, and Eli, my youngest brother, was seven years younger than me. As a child, I attended a private school for girls called Beth Yakov. We were an ordinary working family, and we were happy.
WAR CHANGES EVERYTHING...
On September 1, 1939, I was fourteen years old and the war broke out. After this point, everything changed and I changed with it. My carefree happy family life was over.
During the beginning of the war, my family was living in what was then called White Russia. During this time, the Germans invaded Bialistock. History claims that the Germans did not stay very long in Bialistock because of a pact they signed with Russia. This agreement indicated that Bialistock belonged to Russia, and so the Germans returned Bialistock to White Russia. The Germans stayed in White Russia for a short time and departed as the Russians invaded. The Jewish people were not very nice to the Germans. I can remember people chasing them with stones.
When the Russians arrived it became a different life. We were forced to wait in lines for food in the black markets. I went to school and had to learn Russian. Being the oldest in the family meant that I had a large responsibility. I was expected to help my mother in the black market. Whatever we could buy or sell we did in order to live. This harsh lifestyle forced upon us by the Russians existed for twenty-two months, but all of sudden, the Germans decided enough was enough. As the history books claim, on this day, the Germans fought a war with Russia in order to reclaim the land that they once lost in 1939. Inevitably, the Germans took back Bialeroossi.
THE BURNING OF THE SYNAGOGUE...
Life then changed even more drastically as the Germans came back and invaded Poland. The first horrific instance occurred when the Germans gathered all the Jews from the Jewish quarters and hoarded them into a beautiful and sacred synagogue. The Jews were forced in, one on top of each other, squished and squashed, packed like sardines. They locked all of the entrances and exits, and then performed a most inhumane act while the Jews, prisoners inside the synagogue, lay open to the atrocity. The Germans sparked a flame and lit the synagogue on fire. My family viewed the disaster from the street. To this day, I remember the screams, cries and yells for help, as the synagogue and its human cargo burned bright with its intense flames and smoke.
Out of fear, my family fled to our house. My father, looking out for the safety of his family, locked all of the doors and windows. However, we soon heard knocking at our door and my mother ordered me to take my brothers to the back shed and hide. I obeyed in a trance. The Germans were immediately at the door and grabbed both of my parents. They began to drag them towards the synagogue. When they crossed the street, another German shouted, "It's too late, it's already burning. No more Jews can fit in there." Angered at these words, the Germans with my parents refused to let them go. One officer took his machine gun with a hard wooden handle, and smacked my father across the back of his head. The intensity of the German's blow split my father's head open, blood spurted everywhere, and he fell to the ground in both shock and pain. The German plainly stared at my father for a moment and then merely walked away.
My father lay helplessly on the ground, bleeding from his scull and my mother was left not knowing what to do. She started to run for help. She yelled at the top of her lungs for us to come and assist her. "Try to help Daddy up on his feet" were her instructions and we followed her command. But my father was very heavy. He weighed more then I had ever imagined, almost like a dead weight. A nearby neighbour came and helped us move my father into the house. As a family, we tried to patch him up and clean up his wound. Unfortunately, there were times when his head would bleed because the wound never completely healed itself. Although it was a miracle that he survived this incident, he changed drastically afterwards. He became a new person, so different than the man we used to know and love. He was despondent and ill most of the time.
IN THE GHETTO...
Not long after, we heard that the Germans were announcing the creation of a ghetto, something we learned to dread. Before we realized it, this became a reality. All the Jews were ordered into this ghetto, which was located nearby. We were told that we could only take whatever we could carry in our hands. The ghetto consisted of nearly a dozen streets in a square shaped perimeter. The Germans fenced us in as if we were caged animals. They considered Jews and other non-Germans to be animals. The gates of the ghetto were closely guarded by Germans and were only opened for those Jews who worked outside the ghetto. Otherwise, all other Jews were not allowed to leave.
At this time, I was sixteen years old. With my father being so ill, it was up to me, the eldest in the family, to be responsible and look after my family. I mustered up the courage and bravery to arrange for my family to live in a room in one building in the ghetto. There was one bed in this room in which my parents slept, and my brothers and I slept on floor. The room was large and was divided to accommodate three families. A little later on, I secured our own private room for my family.
Life in the ghetto was not a picnic. I had to scrounge for things to eat, as food was scarce and hard to find. While in the ghetto, the Jews organized our own police and fire department. All the Jewish people did whatever they could to survive, but many died in the process. I remember my cousin Marlee was pregnant before the war broke out, and a few months later, she gave birth to a baby girl. However, the baby soon died of starvation and illness. And each day, the Germans came and took people at random out of the ghetto. We were called down to the streets when they came, and certain people were pinpointed to go onto a wagon. We called it the death wagon as we assumed that these people were destined for death.
A SACK OF POTATOES...
My father too was still ill and despondent. Since he could not work, I secured a job working for a German family outside the ghetto cleaning their house. This enabled me to buy food for my family. For example, I found a Polish man to sell me a bag of potatoes, but he did not want money--instead he wanted gold. I went home and told my mother and she gave me whatever we had. I remember the next day, this Polish man kept his promise and brought me a big sack of potatoes. It was bigger than me, and my problem then turned to how to carry the potatoes home. However, I gave him all the gold that my family had in our possession, and in return, he helped me lift fifty pounds of potatoes onto my shoulders.
To this day, I don't know how I did it. The potatoes were heavy and I fell a few times while carrying them, but I did not complain or waver. I only knew that it was important for me to travel through the gates of the ghetto unnoticed. It was a fact that the Germans inspected everything that was brought into the ghetto. I was worried that they might take the potatoes away from me and I would be left with nothing for my family. We knew that many times at the gates, the Germans had taken possessions away from the Jews, often out of spite.
As I neared the ghetto entrance, I prayed that they should let me go by. When I arrived at the gates, my feet began shaking. I was so nervous I could not contain myself. The German soldier looked at me and said, "What do you got? Such a small little girl is carrying such a big bag of potatoes? What are you going to do with such a big bag?" I knew the answer that I wanted to say "that I have a very big hungry family, and please..." but no words came out of my mouth. Instead I started to cry. He watched the tears fall down my face and then said "You dirty Jew, okay go!" and he let me through.
I saw my mother waiting for me by our building and I was so excited. I could not believe that I managed to get the heavy sack of potatoes inside the ghetto. I was pleased with my accomplishment. I was even happier to know that the potatoes that I carried on my shoulders, regardless of the anxiety that I had experienced at the gates, would feed my family for the next two to three weeks.
WORKING AT THE FACTORY...
Eventually, as the population declined in the ghetto, my family moved to a different building in the ghetto. This building was more pleasant with a lot more room and space. I started to work in a factory inside the ghetto and often, I would take my brothers with me. When the Germans inspected the factory, I used to hide my brothers inside some boxes. Afterwards, when all was clear, we ran home.
The Germans also used to catch people while they were on the street and take them away. At one point, I was nearly caught, but I ran so fast between buildings that they did not catch me. I was lucky. I believe that G-d was watching over me during my days in the ghetto because I was never caught.
LIQUIDATING THE GHETTO...
In Sept. of 1943, the Germans finally liquidated the ghetto. They hollered, "Judenrein", meaning, "No more Jews in Bialistock". They went from door to door and forced all of us out of our homes. They even took my father, although I did not know how he even walked because he was so ill.
They led us to an area outside Bialistock. There we were, my entire family, sitting down on a field filled with other Jewish people, eating the remains of the food we had, grasping our belongings and holding our loved ones.
Suddenly, one of the Ukrainian men, who proved to be just as evil as the Nazis, came over to my mother who was holding my eleven year old brother under her warm coat. The Ukrainian saw my brother's feet hanging out from under the coat. Instantly, he grabbed my mother, tore her coat open, and dragged my brother away from us. This was the last time I ever saw my baby brother, Eli. The Ukrainians repeated this horrific procedure with all the Jewish children--snatching them away from their families. We screamed in terror, and in the process, my mother got slapped in the face. The entire night we cried and prayed for Eli.
In the morning, the Germans and Ukrainians started to divide people--right and left. They ordered the younger people to the right, and the older people to the left. My mother and father were together, and my brother Shaye and I were together. We did not want them to divide us so we ran after our parents. Two Ukrainians grabbed me and took me by my feet and arms and threw me so far that it knocked the wind out of me and I fainted. I awoke at night-time. Fortunately, my brother and cousin Marlee, were there comforting me, trying to revive me. Now it was the three of us--all alone without our parents. It was hard to believe my family was no longer together. When I woke up, my brother was crying because he did not know where our parents were, nor where we were being taken.