November 16, 2022
By Halina Peabody
I was born in Kraków, Poland, and we lived in Zaleszczyki. My mother was an all-around athlete: a champion swimmer, skier, ice skater, and horse rider. She made sure that I would follow in her footsteps and she taught me to skate and ski when I was five. She also taught me to knit, crochet, and embroider, all skills she excelled at.
When I was six years old, I was being prepared for kindergarten and I was told that I would be attending Sunday school to learn Hebrew! Someone actually showed me how to sign my name in Hebrew, and to this day I remember how to do it. We were not observant and being Jewish only meant that I would be learning another language.
My sister, Ewa, was born on June 30, 1939. The war broke out in September 1939. The Soviets occupied our part of Poland and everything changed. My father escaped to Romania without us because he was afraid he would be conscripted into the Soviet army. He didn’t think that women and children would be in danger. Later he tried to sneak back over the frozen river to come home, but the Soviets had sealed the border, caught him, accused him of being a spy, put him on trial, and sentenced him to 20 years of hard labor in Siberia. As the family of a “criminal,” we were thrown out of our house and sent to the small town of Tłuste. When the Germans occupied the rest of Poland we went back home to Zaleszczyki.
The Germans instituted many new laws, the worst ones for the Jews. We had to put the Jewish Star of David on the house and our clothing so that we could be easily identified. There was no school for Jewish children and every Jewish person had to work for the Germans. My mother’s job was knitting sweaters for the German mayor’s children, even though she had two children of her own to take care of.
They started taking groups of young Jewish men for various jobs every day. Then the demand came for a very large group to cover the trunks of young trees with burlap for the winter so they would not freeze. More than 600 men reported for duty. Only one wounded man managed to escape and tell us what happened. There was no job, only an open grave. They were all shot and buried. The remaining Jewish community in Zaleszczyki were thrown out and sent to Tłuste, the same town we were in during the Soviet occupation. The first thing we did when we arrived was to look for a hiding place because we knew there would be other demands for “workers” for Germany, which nobody believed by then.
We were prepared when the demand came, and everybody hid wherever they could. Since we had been in Tłuste before, mother knew some people and she decided to split us up, placing me with one woman who put me in the attic whilst she went to another woman, whom she had paid in advance for hiding her and my sister.
I spent a terrifying time waiting, not knowing if my mom and sister would ever come back. During the whole day, as I waited, my host would give me reports as to who was caught. She knew because they were put on the main square waiting to be taken away by a train, to where we didn’t know, but we were sure it was to death. Some of those in the square were from our building, including Mother’s good friend who had a young baby, but there was no sign of my mother. At the end of the day, the group was loaded on a train and taken away.
Finally my mother and sister came to get me. My mother and I were both traumatized thinking the other had been caught. Mother told me then that from now on we shall never part and, whatever awaits us, we shall go together.
Then she told me how close she was to being caught. The woman who was supposed to hide her and my sister got scared that, if she got caught helping Jews, she would be punished by the Germans, so she threw them out in the middle of the day. They spent the rest of the day on a grassy knoll, crouching under a single bush. My mother said that the Germans were all over looking for stragglers, and airplanes were flying over the area looking for escapees, but by some miracle they never saw her.
Our situation became hopeless, and we were losing hope when some good friends came up with an idea that eventually saved our lives. For a start, we three were all females and couldn’t be physically checked. I was blond with green eyes, and our accents were pure Polish. We did not speak Yiddish, which could be detected and would have given us away. So our friends thought we might have a chance to pass as Catholic. They helped my mother purchase false identities from a priest and it was decided that we would travel to Jarosław where there were no longer any Jews. They took us to the railway station and bid us goodbye.
Before we left for Jarosław, Mother sat me down and taught me my new name, birthplace, grandparents, and explained that we would try to pass as Catholic. Apparently the Germans only killed Jews. The only thing I learned about my new religion was that I had to cross myself entering and leaving church.
During our trip, a friendly young man chatted with Mother. I didn’t pay much attention, but, when he wasn’t around, she told me that he suspected us of being Jewish and had pushed her very hard. She said she had no choice and admitted that we were Jewish. He said that he, too, was going to Jarosław and would accompany us and, upon arrival, would hand us over to the Gestapo. We had no escape. Mother told me that she made a “deal” with him to have all three of us shot immediately to lessen the pain of being separated. She knew that the children would not survive and she didn’t want to live without her children.
Upon arrival in Jarosław, I realized that death was close and I didn’t want to die. But I also didn’t want to leave my mother and sister, so when she asked him to let me go (which he didn’t) I said that I wouldn’t go without her and my sister anyway. As we began walking toward the Gestapo, Mother tried again, saying, “I gave you everything I have, tickets for the luggage, money I had, why don’t you take it all and let us go and try our luck?” And then she added, “Why do you want us on your conscience?” At that point he stopped, turned around, gave Mother back a few zlotys and said, “Z deszczu pod rynne,” which in Polish approximately means “from bad to worse,” and then walked away leaving us in the middle of the town.
© 2022, Halina Peabody. 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.
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