by Halina Yasharoff Peabody
I remember visits to my maternal grandparents every Christmas. Though we are Jewish, this was the time we made our annual visit. My grandfather Stefan (Shmuel) Schreiber worked as an accountant for the Wedel Chocolate Factory and used to bring foil paper so I could shape it into a ball to play with. Grandmother Regina was always at her sewing machine, where she had a lot of treasures, including a fascinating box of buttons, which I played with when I was five years old. They lived in the center of Krakow in an apartment with a balcony. This was very important, my mother told me, because it was used to great effect to hide the Christmas tree from my grandfather’s notice. He was liberal, but the tree was just too much for him to allow. My grandfather had moved the family from a suburb of Krakow into the city so the children could go to Polish public schools. They didn’t speak Yiddish at home, only Polish.
In 1939, when World War II started, my grandfather Stefan had a heart attack and died. Grandmother Regina later was killed in Auschwitz
Olga, my mother, was the youngest of their four children. She told me she was a disappointment to her father because he was hoping for another son and paid little attention to her as a child. However, in her teen years when my mother became the swimming champion of Poland and won many awards and medals, she then became a source of pride to both of her parents.
My uncle Ignacy also troubled my grandfather. He was extremely bright and became a professor at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. This was no small achievement for a Jewish man in Poland in the 1920s, and he had had to change his name and religion to be allowed to work there. My grandfather could not accept this and banished him from the family.
The oldest daughter, my mother’s sister Augustyna (Gucia), was married to a businessman and had a son, Jerzyk (George), who was a few years older than I. They also lived in Krakow. George had a very strict upbringing. My aunt’s idea of parenting and good education was to hire home teachers and have his lessons in German half of the day and French the other half. His time with his parents was limited to dinner, and after that he was sent off to his room. He did not have a happy childhood.
Irka was my mother’s favorite sister. She was married and lived in Warsaw. I know little about her life except that her husband, Julek, was a big joker and loved to eat. When he liked something on the table, he would make everyone laugh while he ingested all of it.
My family lived in Zaleszczyki in the south of Poland. When World War II started on September 1, 1939, I was only 6½ years old, but I do remember that my parents knew that our town was going to be occupied by the Russians. The rest of my family in the north would live under German occupation. I later learned that this was an agreement between the two powers to split Poland in two.
There was great panic in our town in anticipation of the Russian occupation and many people decided to escape to Romania, which was right across the Dniestr River that encircled Zaleszczyki. The river was the natural frontier with Poland, so it was easy to just cross the bridge. The men felt that they were most in danger from the Russians, fearing that they would be conscripted into the Russian Army. My mother and I did not join my father in his flight to Romania because my sister was only two months old and my father thought we would be better off staying at home. He didn’t think that women and children would be in danger from the Russians.
At the same time, my two aunts left their homes in the north and crossed to our side because they were more afraid of the Germans than the Russians. After the Russians settled in to our town and took everything they could lay their hands on, my father and some of his fellow runaways decided to come back. Unfortunately, the Russians had sealed the border by then and arrested them. They were put on trial, and my father was accused of being a spy. He received a sentence of 20 years hard labor and was sent to Siberia.
In the meantime, the Russians offered anyone who had left the German side to go back home without punishment, and both my aunts signed up. We learned later that it was a ruse and that all the people who signed up were arrested, and instead of going back home, they were also sent to Siberia. However, my aunt Irka was sick the day they were scheduled to leave, and in a decision that seemed completely out of character, the Russians took pity on her and left her behind. She and her husband were later murdered in Auschwitz.
My mother was left with the two children, and we survived the German occupation by getting false identities as Catholics with many close calls. We had many miraculous escapes and never knew if we would survive another day.
As the war continued Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill realized that the war was not going well and more men were needed to fight the Germans. At a historic meeting in Yalta, Stalin agreed to allow political prisoners like my father to join a Polish Army unit, created by General Anders, who was also a “political prisoner.” The unit would be under British command and was allowed to leave Russia. Guica, my other aunt; her husband, Bolek; and son, Jerzyk (George), had survived in Russia and were then also able to leave Russia with the Anders Army
When the war ended, my mother posted notices looking for my father, whom we found in Palestine (now Israel), where he had a sister who had emigrated in the 1930s with her family.
As a British officer, my father had the choice to either stay with his family in Palestine or settle in England. My parents chose England, where we tried to pick up our lives. My aunt Gucia and cousin George came to live with us. Uncle Bolek died on the way out of Russia of complications from diabetes and is buried in Teheran.
Everybody’s gone now. Only my sister and I are here to tell the tale to our children and grandchildren, but I am the only one with these memories. My sister was too young to remember, which perhaps is a blessing.
©2018, Halina Yasharoff 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.