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< Echoes of Memory

Winter Coats

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By marcel Drimer

Winter of 1942 was severe. In the Drohobycz ghetto the Germans had decided to exterminate the Jews. The ways to achieve this were by starving or freezing them to death. The food rations were extremely small and there was no coal to heat the homes. People tried to avoid starvation in any way they could. Many of those who before the war worked in professions or trades had to resort to begging—after selling or bartering all their possessions for food, they had no other choice. Cold and hunger combined made people’s lives miserable. As a result, many starved to death. In the spring and summer the misery was intensified by an outbreak of typhus caused by outrageously unsanitary conditions. There were frequent Aktions during which we hid in a hole dug under the floor of our apartment, or in the lumber factory where my father worked. There were often rumors about forthcoming Aktions, which made life so very tense.

Based on such a rumor, my parents decided to escape from the ghetto. We hid in an attic of a timberdrying shed that my father had prepared for us earlier. This was only a temporary solution, so Father tried to find a Gentile family that would hide us. He visited several peasant neighbors of my maternal grandparents and offered to reward them for hiding us. Since he did not have any money he offered a fur coat. Possessing such a coat was punishable by death, as they had been confiscated by the Germans right after they occupied Drohobycz in June 1941. One of the farmers denounced Father to the authorities. A Polish policeman came to take him by train to a prison in nearby Boryslaw. Aware that in the case of an Aktion, the prisoners were the first to be killed or deported to the Belzec extermination camp, Father decided to let the policeman shoot and kill him instead. He got away from the policeman and ran to the middle of the street, to allow the policeman a good aim and to protect the pedestrians on the sidewalk. He was hoping and expecting to be killed any second. Instead, the policeman caught up with Father and hit his head with the handle of the revolver. He said, “I was given an order to bring you to prison, not to kill you. Others will do the killing.” Father was covered with blood and in pain.

In the Boryslaw prison there were several other Jews who committed similar “crimes.” One of them was Mr. Hoffman, whom father befriended. Together they started planning how to escape the prison. Mr. Hoffman knew one of the jailers. He asked Father if he had anything of value with him that could be used to bribe the jailer. Father had a diamond from Mother’s engagement ring hidden in the heel of his shoe. Mr. Hoffman took the diamond, added money that he had hidden in his clothing, and gave it to the jailer. The jailer released both of them.

Usually, from our hiding place in the lumberyard, we could see Father working in the yard through the cracks in the wall. He made an effort to walk often where we could see him. When we did not see him, we realized that something was very wrong. For the next two to three days during the time he was imprisoned, we did not have anything to eat or drink. Mother was desperate—she could not contact anybody outside and she knew that without Father we did not have the slightest chance of survival. My sister and I instinctively felt how helpless the situation was and were upset, worried, and so very hungry.

On the third day, my uncle Bumek, who worked in an oil refinery nearby, came after sunset and took us back to our apartment. A Jewish man in the lumberyard had notified Bumek about what had happened.

Mother cried all the time; she tried to keep us calm and fed us with the meager food that Bumek brought with him. At one point my sister, Irena, screamed, “Mommy, mommy, I see Daddy coming.” Mother replied that she must be imagining, that Daddy would never come back. But it was, indeed, my father. He was covered with blood, unshaven, and dirty, and he even brought a peasant woman with him who had some provisions for bartering. My parents offered what little we had for her food. It was not enough for the woman. At one point she noticed my sister’s coat and offered to give us some food for it. Mother was hesitant to barter away my sister’s only coat, but the woman insisted, arguing that “by the winter the girl will most likely be dead.” Luckily, this prediction did not come true.

©2013, Marcel Drimer. 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.

Tags:   marcel drimerechoes of memory, volume 7

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