Halina Peabody discusses her mother’s decision to go into hiding as a family following the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Halina spent the war in Poland living under false papers identifying her as a Catholic.
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"We were so traumatized that we just stood there and my mother said at that point, that whatever happens, we’re not going to get split up again. Whatever happens, we’ll all go together."
Over sixty years after the Holocaust, hatred, antisemitism, and genocide still threaten our world. The life stories of Holocaust survivors transcend the decades and remind us of the constant need to be vigilant citizens and to stop injustice, prejudice, and hatred wherever and whenever they occur.
This podcast series presents excerpts of interviews with Holocaust survivors from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s public program, First PersonConversations with Holocaust Survivors.
In today’s episode Halina Peabody talks with host, Bill Benson, about surviving several “aktions”, or violent operations against Jewish civilians by the Germans, and her Mother’s eventual decision to disguise the family as Catholics.
At what point, tell us, Halina,when because your mother knew the aktions were coming, there would likely be more of them, she made plans to separate you to go into hiding and she was particularly concerned that you knew how to take care of your little sister.
Well, when we got to Touste again, my mother decided that it was not going to work because she knew that people were finding hiding places all over the city. They were digging holes just to be able to hide when the next action came. And she said, “Look, it’s not going to work because they’re going to move us again.
“The moment we find a little hiding place here or there, we’re going to move us, so it’s not going to work.” So she was trying to get my sister and me to be taken over to Romania. There were some little trips going. There were some people trying to get over and just save the children.
And she was at one point telling me I have to look after my sister. There’s six-and-a-half years’ difference between us so she was a little kid and I was to take care of her and we were going to go at night on a boat over to Romania. But it never never worked out.
And then came another action, and that was when we started looking for places. There was a group of people who went down into the basement and one of the ladies, a friend of my mother, had a little baby boy and they tried to ask her to give him something to sleep, some medicine so that he wouldn’t wake up during the time when they were collecting people.
And she refused and I know that she was caught in that time, because they came around collecting people from various houses because you had the yellow star on the house so they knew where to look. My mother, on the other hand, decided to find two hiding places.
She found a place for me, which was in the loft of a farmer that she knew. And she made a deal with another farmer to keep her and my sister, paid her in advance, and she went over there and I went to the loft. And all during the day they were collecting people.
They were collecting and I knew that, and the lady there was telling me that they were getting people in the square and they saw this lady friend of my mother’s, and I was petrified that they caught my mother and my sister. On the other hand, later on my mother told me, she was afraid that they caught me.
And we both were absolutely traumatized by this, that one thought the other one was caught. What happened to my mother though, was that the lady who was keeping her got frightened and she threw her out right in the middle of the day.
And there she was with this little child and there was a big field and there was a little tiny bushthat’s all it wasand she just crouched by that bush. And there were airplanes flying, looking for stragglers, and it was an absolute miracle that she did not get found.
At the end of the day, they had enough people and the action was called finished. They took the people by train; of course, nobody ever came back. Then my mother came looking for me and we were so traumatized that we just stood there and my mother said at that point, that whatever happens, we’re not going to get split up again. Whatever happens, we’ll all go together.
And that’s when she started looking for ways to get away and to try something else. And at that point, she got her friends to help her and they found a priest who was willing to sell some papers to say that we were Catholics. And we got the papers and managed, before the next action, to be put on the train to leave Touste.
I understand that after we left, the situation got really bad. They made it into a ghetto and a lot of people died, and I’m not going to go into this, but I just found some people from my town who wrote books, and it was very, very fascinating to see what my mother saved my sister and me fromwhat a terrible time everybody had and how few of them survived.
Halina, when your mother was able to purchase those papers identifying you as Catholics, of course that’s only the start of adopting a Catholic identity and here you’ve got two children. What did your mother do?
Halina Peabody: That’s correct, yes. Well, my mother found out a little bit about the Catholic religion and she told me a few basic facts. My sister was too young, she didn’t know, and we didn’t tell her anything. But she just gave me the basic facts.
It was war and I was still a child and she felt that we could somehow manage to get by. And I had to have a new date of birth, I had a new name, I had new grandparentseverything was new. So those things I had to learn by heart and I did.
At about nine years old, to adopt a whole new identity.
Yes, right. That’s correct, but you know, we were so frightened and you grow up very, very fast when your life is in danger, when you feel that they’re going to kill you. We just wanted to run and try our luck, and as I said, my mother was a very brave lady and felt that she had to do something.
She always said that God helps those that help themselves. She felt that she should try whatever it takes because she didn’t want to lose her children. She didn’t want to be separated from her children and that was the main thing. She said for herself, she wouldn’t have cared, but because my sister and I were there, she just was going to do anything that she could to do.
So our friends put us on a train and those days from Touste to Jaroslaw, it was going to take a long time. We had to change trains. It took four days and four nights when we were on a train. And when we started or trip, a young man attached himself to us and was very friendly to my mother and to us.
And started chatting and saying, “Where are we going, what are we doing?” and then started asking other questions like, “Are you Jewish? Is your husband Jewish? Are the kids Jewish?” He was pushing and pushing and my mother, at first denied, but in the end she said to me, “I just couldn’t fight anymore and I told him that we were Jewish.”
And he said, “Of course I have to take you to the Gestapo when we get to Jaroslaw.” And that was when my mother decided to make this deal with him that if she gives him everything, all she wanted to do was to make sure that we got shot right away so she wouldn’t be…she would be spared the separation and whatever was going to befall us, because, you know, young children were being shot, other people were put to work.
She just didn’t want to go through this and so she made this deal with him. And he said fine, he will do that, so she handed over all the money and the tickets for the suitcases and that’s how we traveled for four days and four nights. We ended up full of lice and completely exhausted.
When we arrived in Jaroslaw and got off, I suddenly realized we were going to the Gestapo and they were going to shoot us and I got really scared. And I started pulling at my mother and saying, you know, “I don’t want to die. Please, I don’t want to die, Mom!”
So she turned to this man and she said, “Look, she’s young, she’s green-eyed and blonde. She looks Polish. Why don’t you just let her go and maybe she’ll find a way to somehow find a way to live?” And I said, “No, no. I don’t want to go by myself. I want you to come too.” And so as we’re walking, she says to him, “Do you have children of your own?”
And he said, “Yes,” so she said to him, “Look, why do you want us on your conscience? I’ve given you everything I have, so just let us go and we’ll try our luck.” And it took a while. He wasn’t convinced at first, but in the end, he said, “Okay, you can go.” His parting shot was, “You don’t have a chance in hell.”
So we were glad just to see the back of him. Of course, he took everything we had with us.
You have been listening to First PersonConversations with Holocaust Survivors, a podcast series of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Every Wednesday at 1:00 p.m. from March through August, Holocaust survivors share their stories during First Person programs held at the Museum in Washington, D.C. We would appreciate your feedback on this series. Please visit our Web site, www.ushmm.org/firstperson, and follow the prompts to the First Person podcast survey to let us know what you think.
At our website you can also learn more about the Museum’s survivors, listen to the complete recordings of their conversations, and listen to Museum podcasts Voices on Antisemitism and Voices on Genocide Prevention.