November 01, 2016
BY JULIE KEEFER
Part 1: Getting to the Bunker
In the winter of 1943, Dziadziu learned that the Nazis were going to burn down the ghetto in Lvov where my mother, father, baby sister, and I were hiding.
“Who will go with me to get my daughter and her family out of the ghetto?” Dziadziu asked of his comrades in the bunker, a huge tunnel deep in the Borszczowice Forest.
All the men volunteered; Dziadziu chose five. The men dressed in stolen Nazi uniforms and drove at night in a commandeered Nazi truck to a place near the ghetto. Dziadziu decided to enter the ghetto alone. He crept into the ghetto and located our hiding place, a hidden compartment in his barn. Many years later, he reminisced that I alone recognized him. Even my mother, Sala (his daughter) who had not seen him for a year—did not know him. He had lost more than 100 pounds. His brown hair had turned white in the Janowska concentration camp from which he had escaped earlier.
A glimmer of memory surfaces. I have a picture in my mind of me running up to him, grabbing his legs, hugging his knees, and yelling, “Dziadinu! Dziadinu!” (Grampy! Grampy!) I was ecstatic to see him.
He brought my mother, father, five-month-old sister, and two-and-a-half-year-old me out of the ghetto to the command car and to the home of a brave Polish farmer, Mr. Borecki. The farmer had volunteered to hide my mother, my baby sister, Tola, and me to save our lives. I have an olfactory memory of an acrid smell of ammonia. Was it from cow urine or the bleach used to turn my mother’s dark hair to blond so that she would look less Jewish? I had light hair and dark eyes, and Tola had blond hair and blue eyes. Neither Tola nor I looked particularly Jewish. My grandfather, father, and the other men were to return to the tunnel and continue raiding Ukrainian police outposts and Nazi convoys to obtain provisions and weapons.
“I won’t leave my husband,” insisted Sala. “If I die, I want to be with my husband and you, Father. I have already lost my mother. I don’t want to die without my husband and you.” She was adamant.
There was no choice. My father, my mother, my baby sister, and I all went to the bunker. Herman (my father), Sala, and Dziadziu trudged through the dense woods at dusk. Snow crunched under our feet. My father was carrying Tola, and Dziadziu was carrying me. I was clinging to his chest like a baby monkey. Everybody else in our rescue had already left in the Nazi truck. It was bitterly cold and snowing. I held out my tongue to taste the falling snowflakes. It was not far from Mr. Borecki’s house to the bunker—about a quarter of a mile—but it must have seemed like forever to the two men carrying the two babies. The full moon helped them locate the snow-covered branches hiding the entrance to the bunker.
Part 2: Inside the Bunker
I gripped my Dziadziu’s hand as we descend a ladder that seems very tall to me but was probably only six feet high. The space before us was about 12 feet long and six feet wide. A dim light was flickering.
Now I am inside the bunker, which is empty at the moment except for Dziadziu and me. I step on the tamped-down dirt of the bunker floor. I smell burning wax. I touch the cold, wet wall as I make my way toward a round, splintery wooden table at the far end of the room with a big, fat candle squatting on top. The smell of candle wax, wet earth, and human sweat is overpowering. I feel the heat of the candle, which is the only source of light.
I continue exploring the damp walls with my hands until I feel an opening in the wall and see an arch in the middle. I enter a second room. This room is darker than the first. I continue exploring. To the right, I touch some cold metal and wooden things. Whack! “Julitchka, don’t touch!” Dziadziu yells at me as he smacks my hand. This shocks me, as he has never raised his voice to me, much less his hand. Later I learn that I had touched rifles and other guns.
My grandfather told me about this tunnel many years later. It was in the woods near Lvov, in what was then Poland. He started digging it after escaping from the concentration camp at Janowska. Soon he was joined by two other escaped Jews from a mass Aktion (raid) on a small nearby town. One of them had a gun. They kept expanding the bunker as more and more escaped Jews joined them. At one point, it held 37 people. My grandfather, who had trained as a soldier during and after World War I, was the leader.
The men left the tunnel to get supplies. They shot out the tires of Nazi supply trucks; killed any drivers who did not run away; and grabbed clothing, food, equipment, and arms. They also attacked Nazi outposts manned by Ukrainian guards. At this time, the Banderovtsy, an underground Ukrainian resistance group, inhabited the same dense woods near Lvov. The Banderovtsy, a huge organization, hated the Nazis but did not care for Jews either and only “allowed” (forced) Jewish doctors to join them. But they left the Jews in the tunnel alone. The Banderovtsy kept raiding Nazi trains, trucks, and outposts. The Nazis did not know that Jews were conducting raids as well. The Nazis had a hard time infiltrating these woods, because the Banderovtsy were well trained and fully armed.
Part 3: Leaving the Bunker
Spring is approaching. The adults are tense, agitated. It is cold and damp. The smell of unwashed bodies and human sweat hovers in the air. Lice are everywhere. I am constantly crying with fear, hunger, and cold. I sob as I scratch and poke at the scabs left by lice bites.
My father shouts, “Stop!” and I obey.
My mother asks, “Why did I bring my children here? Now everyone’s lives are in danger. My babies are sick with cold, eaten by lice, and may die here. My beloved father is angry with me. I am desperate and don’t know what to do.” Herman, my father, listens with tears in his eyes. He hugs her. She continues sobbing quietly. Tola is screaming. Mother slams her hand over Tola’s mouth to stop her from crying.
“Sala, you’ll smother her,” warns Dziadziu.
“I can’t let her make all that noise. The Nazis will hear her and find us,” Mother replies.
“I cannot let my two baby granddaughters endanger everyone; life is precious, and each person wants to live,” Dziadziu says to himself.
What should he do? After all, he is responsible for everyone, not just his own family. In his desperation, he decides to get Tola and me out of the bunker. He sighs, “Sala, you and Herman need to stay here with the others.” He borrows peasant clothing and a sheepskin jacket from Mr. Borecki. He dons this costume so that he will pass as a Polish peasant instead of as a Jew. He holds me in the crook of his right arm and cradles six-month-old Tola in his left against his chest.
He climbs up the ladder and walks to the central market in Lvov. He pushes his sheepskin jacket collar up to hide part of his face to prevent recognition. He continues to carry Tola, but I am his “big girl” so I walk beside him holding his hand. He must stoop a bit because he is six foot two, and I am almost three years old and small. He searches the market for Dr. Groer, who runs a Catholic orphanage. His plan is to change our names and to have Dr. Groer take us. He searches. No Dr. Groer. He panics.
“Maybe I’ll just abandon them here in the market. They are pretty children, the older one blond with black eyes, and the baby blond with blue eyes. Someone will find them and care for them, and I’ll come back after the war and get them,” he thinks, frantically.
Just as he is about to abandon us, he spies a Polish Catholic woman, Lucia Nowicka, who had been his neighbor and whom he had helped to run her business when her husband was missing. He shushes her with his index finger to his lips and motions for her to accompany him to a dark, hidden part of the market.
“Pan (Mr.) Eisen, I am so happy to see you, and these must be Sala’s babies. Thank G-d you are alive!” she whispers loudly.
“Panya (Mrs.) Nowicka, can you take the babies to save their lives?”
“Pan Eisen, I no longer have my own house. I had to sell it. Now I work as a live-in cook and housekeeper for a retired Polish couple, the Schwarczinskis.”
Dziadziu and Lucia begin to plot. They decide that Dziadziu will take Mrs. Nowicka’s dead husband’s identity papers and become Stanislaw Nowicki. Both men are tall and large-boned with hazel eyes. Dziadziu has grown a beard and mustache to camouflage some of his features. They will pretend to be a married couple. Tola and I are to be Lucia’s dead sister’s children.
Mrs. Schwarczinski agrees to allow Lucia to bring her “husband” and “nieces” to the small apartment Lucia occupies in her house. Of course, no one except Lucia is to know that Dziadziu, Tola, and I are Jewish.
According to Dziadziu’s diary, a prostitute lives nearby. To earn money and a bottle of vodka, she goes to the Gestapo. “Lucia, the Schwarczinskis’ maid, is harboring Jewish children.”
The Gestapo come and carry Lucia off for “questioning.” She is taken to a jail cell, beaten, and tortured to get her to admit that we are not her nieces but, in fact, Jewish children.
Meanwhile, Dziadziu, Lucia’s “husband,” works at neighboring farms to get extra food for the Schwarczinskis, Lucia, and us. Soon, he learns that Lucia was imprisoned by the Gestapo. He is afraid that she will be hurt, crack under the torture, and reveal everything—that we are Jewish and that more Jews are hiding in a bunker in the woods.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Schwarczinski cares for baby Tola and me. She is exhausted and cannot continue to care for a six month old. “I’m too old,” she sighs.
Mr. Schwarczinski is a friend of Dr. Groer. He writes a letter to Dr. Groer, asking that he take six-month-old Catholic “Antonina Nowicka.” (Dziadziu had given Tola a Christian name to save her life.)
With the letter in his pocket and six-month-old Tola in his arms, he walks slowly to the orphanage, hugging and kissing the precious baby. Dziadziu delivers the letter to Dr. Groer, who orders the nuns to accept “Antonina” immediately. Dziadziu, his eyes moist and his hand trembling, pays for the first three months in advance.
As he is leaving, he keeps telling himself that at least Tola will be safe and that if he survives, he will come to reclaim her after the war.
He writes in his diary that when he returned to our apartment in the Schwarczinskis’ house, I ran up to him and hugged and kissed him, but called him “Grandpa” and not “Uncle.” He had to correct me many times and pointed to his “white hair” as the reason for my confusion. I keep asking for my “baby”—I miss Tola. But Dziadziu says she was sick and taken to a hospital to make her well. When she is all better, she will come back, and we will be together again.
Dziadziu knows that Mrs. Schwarczinski is a friend of the wife of the German commandant, who lives next door. He begs her to intervene to get Lucia out of prison and back home. Mrs. Schwarczinski approaches the commandant’s wife, saying, “I beg you to help. My cook-housekeeper is gone. She has been taken away, and I cannot cope without her. She was accused of harboring Jewish children, which is nonsense. I am a good Catholic. My husband and I are Party members, and you know I would never hide or help Jews. The child, Julia, is Lucia’s dead sister’s child and certainly not a Jew. The baby is in Dr. Groer’s Catholic orphanage. Lucia’s husband has papers proving that he is Mr. Nowicki, a good Polish Catholic.”
The commandant’s wife pleads with her husband to correct this grievous error and return Lucia to the Schwarczinskis. He sends a special car. Lucia is told to clean up and not mention her treatment to anyone. She is returned to the Schwarczinskis without having betrayed any of us, keeping silent throughout her torture.
Ironies abound. In order to save the 32 or so other people in the bunker, Dziadziu took Tola and me out. While we three were gone, a Ukrainian peasant went to the Nazis and said, “I know a bunker where a lot of Jews are hiding. I’ll take you to them.”
The Nazis shot and killed everyone. When Dziadziu returned to check on them, he found all of them dead, including his daughter (my mother) and her husband. He buried them in a mass grave in the bunker. So my parents lie among many others somewhere in the Borszczowice Forest.
How ironic it was that my sister—who Dziadziu thought would have the best chance of survival—was lost, while he and I survived, right next door to the Nazi commandant.
© 2016 Julie Keefer. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.
PREVIOUS POST: Did He Know I Was Jewish?
NEXT POST: Courage