November 01, 2016
BY HALINA YASHAROFF PEABODY
I am not a good liar; my face gives me away. The best I can do is stay silent.
But there was a time, more than 70 years ago, when lying was a necessity if I wanted to live. When Germany invaded eastern Poland, where my family lived in 1941—the Russians came first in 1939—the Jews were being murdered. There was nowhere to run. All doors were closed to us and my mother was left with my little sister and me, ages two and eight and a half, with no hope of staying alive.
What could a mother do? She tried to send us to Romania, but it was too late. We had good friends who were very supportive of us, especially because my father had been sent to Siberia during the Russian occupation, and they decided that perhaps we could pass for Catholics. So they helped my mother purchase false identity papers from a priest.
At eight and a half, I was old enough to understand the hopeless situation we were in. I fully cooperated in learning the details of my new identity, which included a new name, birthplace, grandparents, and—of course—a new religion.
The three of us left the ghetto and boarded a train to another town, which was judenfrei, meaning that it had no Jews anymore. My mother chose a town where she hoped we could get help from an acquaintance who was also living under an assumed name. It was going to be a four-day trip. Our only possessions were two suitcases and a little money collected for us by our kind friends.
Another passenger joined us as we started on our trip. He was very friendly and started chatting with my mother. He was curious about us and asked many questions about my sister and me. The questions became more and more probing, and before long, he pushed so hard that my mother finally admitted that we were Jewish.
She explained to me carefully that he was a folksdeutch (meaning he had German blood), and so he had certain privileges and obligations, which included delivering Jews to the Nazis. He said that he was going to the same town as we were headed and he would accompany us until we reached our destination, and then would hand us over to the Gestapo.
We traveled for four days and nights, and all my mother could think of during these days was if she could find a way for us to survive. The situation was seemingly impossible. My mother knew that the children would be taken away and killed even if she might be used for used as slave labor. She decided that the only thing she could hope for was a quick “resolution,” so she made him a proposal: she would give him the tickets for the suitcases and all the money she had—and even the coats we were wearing— if he would promise to have us shot immediately upon arrival. She explained to me that this way, our suffering would be short.
We finally arrived at our destination, exhausted and full of lice, and we began descending the stairs to the platform. At that point, I suddenly “woke up” and realized that I was about to die. I pulled at my mother’s coat and said, “Mom, I don’t want to die.”
Again, what could she do? She asked the man if he would let me go, explaining to him that I was blonde and green-eyed and did not look Jewish and that perhaps I could survive. Before he said anything, I said that I would not go without her and my sister. So we continued to walk toward the Gestapo.
Then my mother asked the man whether he had children. He replied that he did, so then she said, “Look, I gave you everything I had. Keep it. Just let us go and try our luck. Why do you want to have us on your conscience?” He shrugged and said that we did not have a chance, but he then walked away.
We found ourselves standing in the main street, homeless and lost. There was a little café, and we entered. My mother asked for some milk for my sister and if anyone knew of a place where we could find lodging. It was important for us to be inside so we would not be questioned by the Germans. A young man brought us to a washer lady who took in lodgers and, in spite of her three strapping sons’ objections, she insisted on taking us in and giving us a bed. She told them that “this is a mother with two children, and I have to take her in.”
And so my life as a Catholic began. Mother found different jobs and paid whatever she earned to this good lady. As a Polish child, I could go to school for two hours a day. Sundays we attended church. We lived a strange new life, watching every single step. It was a challenge not to give ourselves away.
We lived in the most primitive conditions—no plumbing, no electricity, and a carbide lamp for light. Going to church was scary because I knew nothing about how to behave as a Catholic, so I had to figure it out and hope for the best. Going to confession was most difficult. What kind of sins did I commit? Well, I was lying but I certainly would not have told the priest that!
It took many close calls and a lot of luck to stay alive, but my mother was always there—and we would talk secretly between ourselves so nobody would hear. Newspapers and radios were forbidden; possession of a radio was punishable by death, as was helping Jews. Food was very scarce, and we kids used to run after carts with farm produce, stealing potatoes and any other products being brought in for the Germans. Sometimes we had only barley for days, which still gives me nightmares even today.
We received one letter from the people we left behind, which was a big risk. But it was so important that our friends felt it had to be sent, since it contained news about my father. The Red Cross had informed us that he was “safe with his sister in Palestine.” This meant that he was out of Russia and free. We knew that there was family in Palestine, and we were overjoyed, but as long as the Germans occupied Poland we could not attempt to contact him.
Mother was naturally most concerned about security, and eventually she took a risky step and applied for a job with the German military camp so she could have identification in case we were stopped. She worked in the kitchen peeling potatoes for the troops, and the ID did help when our place was raided and we were the only ones not taken to the Gestapo station to be checked out. As long as you worked for the Germans, they left you alone.
Living as a “Catholic” became a routine, and during our little secret talks, my mother spoke to me about religion. She wanted to make sure that I did not forget who I was. She told me, “We all pray to the same God but through different religions—and you are Jewish.” This saved me from having any conflicts for the rest of my life. I bless her for being so intuitive.
When the war ended, the Russians came back to “save” us and then just stayed. But at least they let the few of us who survived leave the country.
It was ironic that when we finally were able to join the few survivors who were being taken out of Poland, they did not believe we were Jews. They thought we were Catholics pretending to be Jewish in order to leave Poland!
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