The Museum’s Behind Every Name a Story project gives voice to the experiences of survivors during the Holocaust.
I Remember Everything
I was born in Warsaw in 1930 in the assimilated family. We always had an awareness that we were Jews, as we had to indicate our Jewish faith in all our documents. My mother, Tercja-Mira (but called Teresa), Kalwary was a dentist, and my father, Samuel Kalwary, was educated as a mechanical technician, but he worked as a dental technician in my mother’s office. We lived in the Praha district. I had one sister, Ryszarda, who was eight years older than me. I attended a Jewish school that was conducted exclusively in Polish. My parents separated just before the war, and my mother had a partner, Zygmunt Wiśniewski, a construction engineer, who was instrumental in my survival during the Holocaust. My mother would marry him after the war.
During the first year of Nazi occupation we lived normal lives. But in October of 1940, we were forced to move to the Warsaw ghetto. I was ten years old. At that time, the ghetto was not yet overcrowded. There was still electricity. Streetcars had the Star of David on the front of them. Most of the time I stayed alone at home. As a child, it was kind of an adventure—something exciting was happening. My mother was there for me; I felt safe and well taken care of. My mother moved the dental office to the ghetto, but I don’t think she had much of a practice there. After a while, I started to go out into the yard and play with boys my age. One of our activities was climbing the low roofs of the warehouses.
The change came quickly. The electricity was cut off and there was a piercing darkness at night. I remember particularly well the production of carbide lamps that came in a great variety of shapes. Phosphorized brooches that glowed in the dark became popular, especially among children, to prevent us from bumping into each other. I also remember Star of David armbands that were sold in many different styles. The streetcars were eliminated and replaced by horse-driven omnibuses. Food became scarce and hunger started to become prevalent. My mother was in charge of securing food for us, which she got on the Aryan side. I was never hungry because of my mother’s resourcefulness—unheard of in the ghetto. We mainly ate millet, noodles made of coarsely ground rye, beets, potatoes, and hominy. The ghetto quickly became overcrowded. There was much disease, especially typhus. Starvation and typhus were the two major causes of death. There were lice. My mother inspected my clothes and my hair whenever I came home, using a special thick comb, and she applied sabadilla to treat the lice.
In 1942, at the age of twelve, I grew up quite a bit. Walking—or rather loitering—around the ghetto, the streets were horrendous. I remember the shocking scenes of dead bodies covered with newspapers lying in the streets, as indifferent crowds passed right by the skeleton bodies. I remember hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hungry people begging for bread. People in the street were crying imploringly in Yiddish, “a shtikele brot; a shtikele brot; gib a shtikele brot” (“a piece of bread; a piece of bread; give me a piece of bread”). Children were selling goods and performing in the streets attempting to make money. I remember a small impoverished girl, maybe six or seven years old, sitting in front of a closed store on Miodowa Street selling shoe insoles. I still hear her singing and mournful little voice: “Shoe insoles, warm, for women, for men,” repeatedly, without stopping. I never saw anybody buy anything from her.
In Leszno district, toward Żelazna Street, a 12-year-old girl, my age, wearing ballet shoes and a tutu skirt, looking like a ballet student, was performing classical ballet. In the same district, a boy younger than me was playing a violin. I never saw anybody put money in his can. Now, when I remember these scenes, I recall what resignation and hopelessness appeared on these sad little faces. In normal circumstances, time goes fast, but in the ghetto, it dragged exceedingly long. Every day passed very slowly, as if to spite us.
I don’t know if anybody told my mother what the Germans were planning or if it was just her woman’s intuition, but she moved to the Aryan side around the 17th or 18th of July 1942. As before, I was left alone at home with food supplies for several days. Unexpectedly, on July 20th or 21st, early in the morning, I heard knocking at the door. When I opened it, I saw a messenger from the court, in full uniform with the official hat. He handed me a summons to testify in court, saying with a sly smile, “Listen, get ready, be quick. They are waiting for you in court.” Together we went to the court house across the street. Inside, the security guard (previously bribed) approached me immediately. I followed him as we went through an endless labyrinth of corridors, passing many people who were so preoccupied with their own matters, they didn’t pay attention to us. When we reached our destination, the security guard had taken me to the Aryan side. My stepfather was waiting for me and looked at my raven-black curly hair with horror and asked,”Couldn’t you have gotten a haircut?” I answered, “I didn’t know.” He asked again, “Why didn’t you take a hat?” Again I said, “I didn’t know.” He bought a hat with a visor that was too big but it enabled me to enter Ogrodowa Street, on the Aryan side, without any difficulty. Everybody in the court, the security guard, the clerks, and the police were bribed. They all had to know that the summons was forged.
I didn’t look impoverished, and I didn’t have a typical Semitic appearance, but my black curly hair betrayed me. Just after we left the ghetto, I was taken to a nearby barber who shaved my head. It was called a zero haircut. The barber, a nice man as I remember, smiled understandingly and started to work. Apparently, he knew what it was all about, and I wasn’t his first client with a similar request. Soon after, we got a hair clipper and my mother shaved my head every week. As I later learned, the court in Leszno district was closed for Jews the very next day, and the deportation started. I left just in the nick of time. After the haircut, I was taken by rickshaw to an empty apartment. I was told not to go close to the window. I stayed there a short time and was then taken to another apartment for one night. I was shocked by the pleasant and carefree atmosphere on the Aryan side. It was like another world. Life was going on normally. Two young girls and an older woman who lived in the apartment were just returning from the movie house, discussing a film they had just seen. I stayed there one night and then I went to the Warszawa Wileńska railroad station to join my father at the ghetto in Wołomin, about 16 miles from Warsaw. The conditions there were hard, but it was not as crowded as the Warsaw ghetto, and the hunger wasn’t as bad. I didn’t stay long, maybe two months or so. In September 1942, there was a rumor that the ghetto would be liquidated. My stepfather came to pick me up, and I left the ghetto in Wołomin.
That afternoon, I found myself at the home of a nice woman who had a son my age. She took me to the coal cellar and brought me a mattress to sleep on. A boy brought me food and a bucket; I knew what that was for. We stayed up for a long time and had a friendly talk. In the morning, my stepfather came and took me to Wieliszew near Legionowo, about 15 miles from Warsaw. When we arrived, we were walking through woods and sandy roads to an isolated house, home of the Dąbrowski family. They were nice people, elderly. He worked every day and she stayed at home. That same day my stepfather taught me the Lord’s Prayer. He put a religious medallion on my neck. Every night I said the prayer as I knelt by my bed in a very demonstrative and loud voice. I assumed that the Dąbrowskis knew or suspected that I was a Jew. They could alleviate any doubts by inspecting me [for circumcision] when I was asleep but there was a conspiracy and we never talked about this subject. The usual topic of conversation was about everyday life. They were not rich, and they had a hard life. They ate what they grew in their garden, including their own potatoes. The only meat we ate was rabbit, which they bred themselves. I didn’t need to hide as the house was secluded. When Mrs. Dąbrowski left the house, which happened rarely, she took me with her and introduced me as her nephew. My duty was tending the goat—the main source of the family’s dairy supply. One day when I was in the field with the goat, a group of children my age saw me and started to shout, “Oh, a Jew, a Jew.” I told this to Mrs. Dąbrowski. In a few days, my stepfather came and took me to Sędziszów, near Kielce, about 150 miles south of Warsaw. I joined him and my mother there.
We lived in a small house, one room with a kitchen, close to the railroad station. German railroad men lived in a new settlement nearby. Both my mother and stepfather were fluent in German. My mother issued a Bescheinigung for me, a forged work permit, under the name of Marian Wiśniewski. My stepfather worked as an engineer and was a director of the Polish-German water-and-sewage-system firm of the railroad station; my mother took care of the administration. My mother had a lovely personality, with the ability to win people over, even those she didn’t like. She worked for the Germans as a housemaid and mainly darned socks. The Germans paid her in food, like flour, sugar, and margarine. We were not afraid of Germans because they couldn’t recognize a Jew. They thought that Jews looked the way Goebbels’ propaganda portrayed them: with crooked noses, side locks, black coats, and the like.
My mother was worried about her daughter and son-in-law who lived in Warsaw and suffered hunger. She supplied them with eggs, salted butter, cured meat, and macaroni, making regular food packages for them, and it was my responsibility to transport the packages from Sędziszów to the nearest post office in Jędrzejów, about 18 miles by train. Once when I was transporting one of these packages, a Polish railroad man was sitting across from me in the train compartment. He stared at me and then said, “Listen, you are a Jew.” I said, “What are you talking about? As you can see, I’m carrying a package to be mailed at the post office.” He asked me, “Where are you working?” I showed him my work permit. The railroad man said, “Let’s go to the toilet and I will check” [for circumcision]. “Are you crazy?” I said. “I’m not going anywhere with you. I’m not a Jew! Don’t bother me.” He kept saying, “Let’s go to the toilet.” I shrugged my shoulders and pretended I didn’t understand. The train stopped at the Jędrzejów station, where I was supposed to get off. The railroad man grabbed me by my arm and we got off together. He continued to hold my arm and was looking for either a German or a Polish policeman. When he saw none, he started to scream hysterically, “People, there is no policeman, call for a Bahnschutzpolizei” (German railroad policeman). I had unbelievable luck, as usually there were many policemen in the station. A miracle? The train started to move, the railroad man jumped back onto the moving train and shouted that if he didn’t have to work he would get me. When I returned home, my mother was terrified by the story, and she didn’t allow me to leave home from that time on. Sometimes there were patrols of Polish civilians accompanied by a German policeman; it was very dangerous. On such occasions, it was better if I didn’t exist. Our apartment had a cellar that became a hiding place for me. I used the cellar many times, sometimes just for a short while, sometimes longer.
Avoiding any further contact with Poles and living by the German railroad men settlement, we were able to survive till the end of the war. I was then fifteen.
After the war, Marian Kalwary attended the National Film School in Łódź, receiving an MA in Educational Films in 1954. He worked as a director and film operator of popular science short films. After the fall of communism in late eighties, he started his own business. Mr. Kalwary served as treasurer and vice president of the Association of “Children of the Holocaust” in Poland. He has been involved for many years in organizing financial help for the Polish Righteous Among the Nations. He has been active in The Union of Jewish Communities in Poland. During the last few years, he has been a representative of the Board for Pensions for Ghetto Workers and for his accomplishments received the Cross of Honor awarded by the Federal Republic of Germany.
This excerpt is from Marian Kalwary, “Wszystko pamiętam,” [“I Remember Everything”] in Dzieci Holocaustu mówią . . . [Children of the Holocaust Speak . . . ], Vol. 5, Edited by A. Kołacińska-Gałązka (Warsaw: Association of Children of the Holocaust in Poland, 2013, pp. 142-164). Translated and edited here by Dr. Krystyna Sanderson.