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My Dziadzio’s Legs. Lager, Late 1947

By Julie Keefer

In late 1947, my grandpa (dziadzio), step-grandmother (babcia), and six-and-a-half-year-old I (Jula) lived in Tyler Displaced Persons camp (DP camp) in Wegscheid, near Linz, Austria. Tyler DP camp, also known as Wegscheid I DP camp, was the largest and most primitive DP camp in Austria. It was considered temporary shelter for people emigrating to other places. Each family was assigned one room in the camp (lager) composed of weathered, splintery, wooden barracks. On the right side of the lager and a bit away from the barracks were outdoor wooden shacks with toilets all attached in a row. Water was available from two outside spigots. We lived in barrack 13, near one of the spigots. I do not remember our room number nor the total number of rooms in our barrack.

Our room measured 12 by 14 feet, with one window. Across from the window, against the wall, was a huge king-size bed on which lay three pillows, filled with contraband sugar. We sold the sugar on the black market to get enough money to buy food and some coal or wood for cooking and heat. My job was to lie in the bed and pretend to be asleep when police come to check for illegal goods. In front of the window squatted a rough wooden table and three wooden chairs. To the right of the middle chair was a round galvanized tub, one third filled with cold water from the outdoor spigot. Babcia brought several kettles of water to heat on the stove. She poured their contents to warm the water in the tub. Dziadzio sat in the middle chair, his back to the table, the tub in front of him. After moving the right-hand chair out of the way, I knelt on the floor to the right of the tub. I grabbed one of Dziadzio’s swollen legs. I placed one and then the other into the tub, using all my strength to lift each one. He helped by lifting each leg in turn but pretended that I had done it all myself. “You’re so strong, Julitchka.”

Dziadzio was a large man. He was 6 feet 2 inches, about 250 pounds. His hair had returned to its original, light brown color after turning white while he endured the horrors of the Janowska concentration camp. He was the largest, strongest, and most loving man I knew.

I proceeded to wash his legs, one at a time, with a fat bar of caustic lye soap that was so big that I needed two hands to hold it. Those were the legs of a man who outlived all three of his brothers, his parents, his wife, his son and daughter-in-law and their two sons, as well as his daughter and son-in-law. Those legs had survived not only physical torture but also the emotional torture of burying his dearly beloved daughter and her husband, my mother and father. Those legs survived trekking through Lwów cradling his six-month-old granddaughter (my sister) to Dr. Groer’s Catholic orphanage. He changed her name from Tola Weinstock (a Jewish name) to Antonina Nowicka (a Catholic name) to save her life.

Those legs were swollen and weakened from brutal beatings and starvation. Those legs helped him to escape from the hard-labor camp (Jaktarow) and later to run away from Janowska. Those legs helped him run through the gates of Janowska just as the sentries were opening them to let in new prisoners. He was barefoot and clad in a thin, striped, flimsy cotton concentration camp uniform, complete with two yellow stars. The sentries shot at him but only managed to hit his right thumb as he jumped, hands raised. At that moment, he noted a Nazi supply train approaching. His legs, now strengthened by desperation, raced across the tracks, narrowly missing being hit by the train. He ran alongside the train, which served as a barrier, as the Nazis did not dare shoot and blow up any armaments it carried. It was late November, snowing and cold.

Those legs brought Dziadzio to the home of Stanislaw Borecki, a Polish peasant, who bandaged his bloody hand, put mercurochrome on it, and provided him with warm clothes and a jacket as well as thick rags to cover his feet. He also gave him three large loaves of bread and a shovel to dig a trench to avoid detection and to protect himself from the cold. Those legs carried Dziadzio deep into the Borszczowice Forest, where he started digging a bunker, which he covered with branches to conceal its existence. Soon, he met two other survivors. When other survivors joined them, they enlarged the bunker. Thus, the owner of those legs became the leader of a group of 30-some Jews. The owner of those legs led charges to shoot the tires of Nazi munitions trucks, kill the drivers if they chose not to run away, and steal supplies, clothes, and arms.

Much later, in his third and final DP camp, his legs in the basin filled with tepid water, he looked back on all that he had suffered. He shook himself slightly, glanced at me with a smile, and closed his eyes. “Ahhh,” he sighed as I blotted the top of each leg with a clean towel, again using two hands to take each leg out of the water. I continued to pat dry each elephantine leg using both hands and gently placed each leg on the clean rag on the wooden floor, where I dried each swollen leg thoroughly.

“You are so good, Julitchka! You know just what to do! My Julitchka, you make my legs feel so good. Nobody else can make my legs feel so good.” There was silence. Then my dziadzio murmured, “You’re all I have left, Julitchka. You are my heart.”

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