Born May 1, 1934, Drohobycz, Poland
I was seven years old when the German army entered our town, Drohobycz, in Soviet Ukraine on July 1, 1941. Immediately they started persecuting Jews by indiscriminately robbing and killing us, forcing us to wear armbands with the Star of David, and confiscating our arms, radios, gold, etc. They encouraged Ukrainian thugs to enter Jewish homes, beat up the inhabitants, and take whatever they wanted. In fact, it did not take much encouragement. My maternal grandfather was one of the victims of the beatings and died a few days later.
In August 1942, in our small apartment lived nine people: my parents; my sister and I; Aunt Ryfka, my father’s sister, and her two small children; my maternal grandmother, Sara; and my paternal grandfather, Isaac.
Ryfka’s husband had been drafted into the Soviet army. Sara’s husband was killed by the thugs in June 1941. None of these people could fend for themselves and fully depended on my father for food and shelter. The apartment was crowded and food was rationed and scarce. My father bartered items for food, including his wedding ring for a loaf of bread.
My Gentile nanny, Jancia, who loved me very much, would visit us from time to time and bring some bread and milk. She offered to take me with her for a few days to feed me and give me a bath and then bring me back home.
After a couple of days my sister, Irena, who missed me a great deal, cried and begged my mother to bring me back home so she could play with me. Mother took off her Star of David armband and walked with Irena to Jancia’s place. When they came, they found me sitting in a corner crying and Jancia on the bed in labor. Mother helped her to deliver the baby, which turned out to be stillborn. We stayed there overnight. The next morning, Jancia’s husband came from his nightshift and said that there was an aktion in town—Germans were killing and gathering Jews for deportation. He was very upset seeing us there and said that if the Nazis found us in his home they would kill all of us. He gave my mother, Irena, and me some food and told us to hide in the forest.
We started walking through a wheat field toward the forest. My mother noticed a hole in the ground and decided we should hide there. She wore a raincoat the color of ripe wheat. The three of us lay down and covered ourselves with the coat. There were other Jews hiding in the fields and the forests.
When the Germans found a group of Jews hiding, we heard shouts, the dogs were barking, and people were begging and praying for mercy. Children were crying. The Germans escorted the group out and there was silence. A deadly silence. After a while the Germans returned to find another group of Jews and the sounds repeated, like a leitmotif. We lay horrified, expecting to be next. My sister and I cried. Mother tried to keep us quiet and covered us with her body. This lasted for three or four hours. Then the horrific noise stopped. We waited until dusk and then Mother decided to walk back to Jancia’s house. As we approached the road, a German soldier with a big dog came toward us. We were terrified. He looked at us for a few minutes, which seemed like hours. Then he turned around and walked away. To this day I don’t know why, but perhaps he noticed my blond, blue-eyed pretty little sister.
After spending another night in Jancia’s house, Father, who had stayed in a workers dormitory overnight, came and took us home. Our place was empty and in terrible disarray. Feathers from torn bedding were everywhere, the furniture was broken, and all the valuables were gone. A neighbor told us later that when the Germans and their helpers missed our place, a ten-year-old Ukrainian boy, whose name was Koziol, ran after them to show them where our relatives lived.*
If Jancia hadn’t taken me to her home, if my sister hadn’t convinced Mother to go, and if the German soldier on the road had been accompanied by another soldier, I wouldn’t be here to tell this story.
*In that aktion about 600 Jews were killed and 2,500 taken to Belzec, including my relatives.
My uncle, Abraham Gruber (nicknamed “Bumek”), was called up for active duty in the Polish army in the summer of 1939. He was a corporal in the cavalry. He was a strong, handsome, and very likable man. I remember him telling me that he could jump over two horses side by side. The Polish cavalry was well known in the world; they fought bravely, but it turned out they were no match for German tanks. At some point the officers realized that the war was lost and disbanded the units. Bumek walked some 250 miles from near Warsaw to our home town of Drohobycz pretending to be Polish or Ukrainian. He knew how to talk and pray in these languages, worked for food and shelter along the way, and made it home to his wife, Blimka, and daughter, Liba. Drohobycz at that time was under Soviet rule.
In June 1941, Germany attacked Russia and their army reached Drohobycz on the first of July.
Summer of 1943 found Bumek, his wife, and daughter living in the ghetto. It was an open ghetto; it did not have fences, but Jews were not allowed to leave it. When conditions there became unbearable, Bumek brought his wife and daughter to the Galicja oil refinery, where he worked as a butcher and lived in the labor camp with his wife and daughter and other Jewish families. At the same time my mother, sister, and I were hiding in the nearby village of Mlynki Szkolnikowe, at the Sawinski farm. Food was rationed, and buying it on the black market would seem suspicious to the neighbors. We all would be in danger of being discovered and killed. Therefore the Sawinskis’ youngest son, 12-year-old Tadek, took a wagon and a big milk container every day to the eating place where workers had their meals and he brought the table scraps home for the pigs. We got the first choice. Sometimes Bumek secretly gave Tadek some meat or bread to bring to all of us. This was very dangerous for everyone.
One day, when Bumek was at work, someone told him that his wife and daughter had been taken away in a truck, with other people, and driven toward the forest. Since Bumek had befriended some German officers by giving them better cuts of meat and talking with them in German, one of them took him on a motorcycle to try to catch up with the truck to rescue his family. They were too late. As they approached the forest, the truck was on its way back. The officer stopped it, but there was only the clothing of the dead left on the floor of the truck.
Bumek looked inside the truck and found the shoes of his little girl. He was devastated. He lost his will to live. He decided he would not hide if there was another Aktion.
A few weeks later, while walking in the camp compound, he noticed a young girl with curly hair and Semitic features who was playing there. She took him to her mother, Tusia. Bumek warned her to hide the child and they talked about their misfortunes. Her husband was mobilized by the Soviet army and taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans. Since Germans immediately killed the Jewish POWs, she assumed he was dead.
Loneliness in their situation was especially depressing so Bumek and Tusia began to see each other. He helped Tusia and her daughter, Fela, by giving them food and companionship. Tusia was a seamstress for the German officers’ wives and mistresses. When one of them asked Tusia to finish a dress by a certain day, it was a signal for Bumek and Tusia that another Aktion was coming soon and their lives would be endangered again.
When Bumek and his family were living in the ghetto, the Germans had dropped a looted chandelier during one of the Aktions. Bumek had picked up a few pieces of crystal and asked a jeweler to make him a ring with a crystal cut like a diamond. Now he offered this ring to the Sawinskis as a payment for hiding him. Mr. Sawinski was going to sell the ring to buy a cow. Because the ring was a fake, Bumek could not let that happen so he pretended it had sentimental value to him and promised to buy the Sawinskis a cow after the war.
The Sawinski family had known Bumek since he was a child, liked him very much, and agreed to hide him. Bumek hired a trusted farmer with a horse and wagon filled with straw, hid Tusia and Fela in it, and drove to the Sawinski farm. The Sawinskis were not prepared to take in all of them, but Bumek said that he could not take Tusia and Fela back to face certain death and so the Sawinskis agreed to let all three of them stay. I don’t remember the details, but eventually there were 13 of us hiding there. The conditions were terrible; some of us were hiding in the attic under a thatched roof with no chimney, others in a hole under the dirt floor. Food was scarce. It was fall 1943; we heard the Russian front was not far and hoped that our misery would soon be over. But it took until August 7, 1944, for the Red Army to liberate us.
There were about 13,000 Jews in Drohobycz before the war; in August 1944, about 400 survivors came out of the forests and other hiding places. We were malnourished, sick, and dressed in rags. Slowly, we tried to restart our lives. Some Jews returned from Russia, some were demobilized, and some came back from the camps. One of them was Tusia’s husband. He had been taken as a prisoner of war by an Italian unit fighting on the Eastern front. The Italians treated their POWs humanely.
By that time Tusia and Bumek were married and she was pregnant with Bumek’s child. Tusia and her first husband, Giedalko, were Zionists and had gone to Palestine but came back before the war. Their daughter, Fela, was born in 1937. Tusia now had to make a wrenching decision and she decided to stay with Bumek.
With the first money Bumek saved, he bought a beautiful cow for the Sawinskis and asked them to return the ring. They never knew the ring was a fake. He also helped one of their sons get a job in the meat-processing company where he was a director. Bumek and my parents helped the Sawinskis as much as they could. We nominated them and they are now listed in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as Righteous Among the Nations.
I don’t know much about the other people who survived with us. Their family name was Wajs. Mrs. Wajs was killed soon after liberation by a stray bullet from a drunken Russian soldier. The Sawinskis tried to contact them, but with no success.
©2011, Marcel Drimer. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this Web site are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.