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I was born and raised in Zawichost, a "town situated on the Vistula River in the Sandomierz area. A dressmaker by trade, I was patronized by a large gentile clientele.
My political, cultural and community activities were widely known, even beyond my own town. For many years I conducted evening courses for young and adult workers. I was a librarian of our well-endowed library and also performed in the theater. Because of my involvement with political activities, I was hounded by the State Police.
Mair Zysman, my husband, is a native of Annapol, a town in the province of Lublin. Upon his release from prison, where he served a sentence for engaging in political activities, he volunteered' to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Mair was a member of the "Dombrowsky Brigade".
I didn't manage to escape before the Nazi invasion. On October 19, 1942, three days before the Jews of my town, Zawichost, were deported, one of my clients, Mrs. Brzezinska, a gentile woman, came to my home and said, "Here are my keys, take them and go to Skarzysko." At the time, Mrs. Brzezinska lived in Skarzysko, where she managed a ladies' dress shop. "I want to help you. Deportation means certain death. You have very capable hands and you must live."
I followed her advice and that same evening, I bid my entire family farewell and traveled to Skarzysko. There, I was received by Mrs. Brzezinska's husband and their ten or twelve-year-old son. On the second day Mrs. Brzezinska arrived. Since my foot was bandaged, they decided to tell everyone I’m a relative from the country and that I came here to have my foot treated by a doctor. The landlord, however, requested an identification card* in order to register me with the authorities; but despite all her good intentions, Mrs. Brzezinska could not obtain this document.
After wandering from place to place for several weeks, I was obliged to leave Skarzysko and headed for Ozarow, in the vicinity of Opatow, where Marysia Ziemniak's brother resided. Marysia, one of my clients, was housekeeper to the Priest, Father Zeczynski. (Marysia has reached the ripe-old age of 84 and resides at present in the Old People's Home on Wilkowaka Street in Warsaw. Since the liberation she's been dearer to me than a sister.) Marysia's brother, sister-in-law, their son and mother, were alerted to my possible arrival.
Their mother received me heartily and warmly. I'll always remember that breakfast, the warmed-over potatoes and white borscht, how good everything tasted after having gone hungry for two days. However, I remained with Marysia's brother but a short time. The family was in great danger. They had no facilities for hiding me. One day Marysia came to see me. She and her brother resolved to send me to acquaintances who operated a mill near Sandomierz. Although I worked very hard there, I was able to move about freely. They were not aware that I'm Jewish and fortunately my physical appearance and my Polish did not arouse any suspicions. Sunday
afternoons I started going to church in Sandomierz for afternoon mass. When the mass deportations of Jews had ceased, public announcements in the press, and I believe on radio as well, urged all the Jews who hasn't been deported to come out of their hiding places in the woods and fields - they would be allowed to relocate freely and unhindered in the newly established ghettos. The Nazi "trick" gained its end. Hungry, lice-ridden, exhausted Jews began to crawl out of their holes and places of refuge. In but a short time, the Sandomierz ghetto consisting of two streets fenced off with barbed wire, and gates guarded by the Jewish Police, was established and a new
Judenrat was formed. About 20 people lived in each house, people slept on the floor, on the street, on rooftops, wherever they could find a little free space. By chance, I discovered that my elder brother and his wife were living in that ghetto. Before the deportations they had resided in Klimontow. My Sunday walks to church turned into visits to the ghetto. My brother waited for me at the entrance and smuggled me inside. There I also located several people from Zawichost. I learned how all the Jews from my home town, including my parents, were driven on foot to the railway station at Dwikozy; from there they were deported in sealed freight cars to Treblinka where they perished in the gas chambers.
One Sunday, when I reached Sandomierz, I came upon a terrible scene. The ghetto had been evacuated and the people were marched to the train station at Nadbrzeze; there, horse-drawn wagons awaited them. Those horses and wagons were employed to collect the dead who had been shot on the way. The wagons looked as though they were carrying refuse to fertilize a field. Anyone who turned around, bent over, or coughed, was shot on the spot. The wagons, loaded with the dead, drove into the ghetto; the remaining Jews were forced to clean the streets and dig graves to bury the victims - their own wives, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers.
I mingled with the Catholics who were coming out of church. I heard them moaning, weeping and screaming, "Mother of God." I did not cry - the tears in my eyes had dried up. "I'm attending my parents' funeral, "I said to myself, "and the funeral of my people."
As I proceeded on the road toward Zawichost, I noticed a wagon had stopped and someone called my name. To my great joy, I discerned my Marysia and her sister. They were conveying melted fat to a small factory in Sandomierz where candles were produced for the church. They helped me up on the wagon, wrapped me in blankets against the cold, and brought me to Sandomierz. There, I was taken to the Parsonage in Truica, a suburb of Zawichost.
I barely stayed over one night. The Parsonage was under suspicion. Moreover, the miller, who knew I was in contact with Marysia, visited the following day. The N.S.Z. (Narodowe Sily Zbrojne - Nationalist Armed Forces*) had searched the Parsonage for Jews 19 times. From his pulpit the Priest often warned the congregation not to assist the occupying power. In a village not far from Zawichost., the N.S.Z. threw more than 30 Jews, who had been hidden by gentiles, into the well. After the liberation, several hoodlums who had killed the Fefferbojms, a Jewish family from Zawichost, (9 people) were tried and condemned to death.
*A Polish fascist organization that cooperated with the Germans
Early the following morning, at dawn, on my way to town, I met my school friend, Jozef Przysiecki. Over his shoulders he carried a yoke from which hung two buckets of water. Traveling with him, a peasant and Jozef's mother, Mrs. Przysiecka, a well-known midwife, who delivered all the Jewish babies in town. She and her son lived in a very nice house - the first house on the road coming from Truica, opposite the Jewish cemetery. Their home, elevated from the road, was surrounded by a very high fence. Beautiful flowers, bushes and trees grew around the house. An extraordinary dog guarded the entrance; his bark was different when strangers approached, and different when either Jozef or Mrs. Przysiecka entered. Large thick-foliaged plants contained in
Flower-pots, covered the windows.
Jozef drew close to me and said, "Come to us, my mother will be glad to receive you." When his mother opened the door, she extended both arms, embraced and hugged me. "Moje biedne sieroty," (my poor orphans) she said. "If you have nowhere to stay, you are welcome to spend the night with us." At the time I did not understand why she had addressed me in the plural.
I never told anyone where I same from, where I was going and with whom I was in contact. Mrs. Brzezinska had asked me to visit Mrs. Sobiecka, her friend and one of my former teachers. When it grew dark, Jozef accompanied me to her home at the other end of town. Taking extreme precautions, I entered her house. We conversed over a cup of tea. Mrs. Sobiecka's husband had been deported to Oswiecim and a brother was shot by the Germans. She gave me news of our town, our mutual friend Mrs. Brzezinska and the country in general.
Jozef was apprehensive; he waited for me outside on the street. It was a terribly dark night and we had traveled a long round about way in our attempt to elude the German patrol and every other living creature. At home the table was set for dinner and they were awaiting our arrival. After we greeted one another, Mrs. Przysiecka pointed in a certain direction and said, "Turn around, Zoska." Naturally, I obeyed. At this moment I heard a door open and someone entered. Then Mrs. Przysiecka told me to turn about. To my great astonishment, I saw Itka standing before me.
Before the war we had lived next door to one another and our parents were good friends. We fell into each other's arms. We did not shed tears but blood streamed from our hearts. Now I understood what Mrs. Przysiecka had meant - she had been hiding Itka for several months.
At first they intended to keep me for a few days. During the day, when the dog's barking alerted us to the intrusion of a stranger, we hid in the small alcove. At night we all slept in one room. Mrs. Przysiecka had needlework for me - I did all kinds of sewing, from hemming linens to altering a coat. When all the work was done to her satisfaction, I thought she would ask me to leave.
However, I became a member of the Przysiecki household. During the day, when it was quiet in town, we stayed in the house. While I did housework, Itka stood at the window where she looked through the cracks and watched out for strangers.
One evening in October 1943 (at the time Jozef was on guard duty on the street) we had just gone down to the carefully camouflaged cellar, when the dog barked. Immediately, we heard heavy footsteps, knocking and pounding at the door and shutters, and loud shouting ordering us to open up. The N.S.Z. hoodlums had come to pay us a visit. They had found Jozef on the street and taken him along. Upon entering the house they said to Mrs. Przysiecka: "Where are the two Jewesses? The "Fishloovneh" and the "Berkoovneh"?" My father's name was Fishel, and ltka's, Berek. They searched the entire house and stole whatever took their fancy: Jozef's new boots which he only wore to church on Sunday, and tobacco which was drying on the stove. I heard Mrs. Przysiecka say to one of them, "You have come to me to look for Jews?" They didn't find us - we were hidden in the cleverly constructed cellar. Mrs. Przysiecka had the cellar built for her own purposes. She never dreamed that one day she would hide Jewish children there.
The following morning, after Jozef and his mother had recovered from the shock, they realized that we could not spend one more night in the cellar, since the brick-layers who had built her house might inform the hoodlums about our hiding place, thus prompting them to return.
Mrs. Przysiecka hurried to the Priest in Truica and confided in him. The Priest knew about us - he had been giving her material assistance. Marysia often brought us milk, butter, cheese, potatoes and vegetables. After consulting with the Priest, he suggested she send us to the Parsonage.
When it was dark, Jozef drove us through side-streets to the Priest. We hid in the attic several days until Jozef built another cellar, this time in the shed where he stored wood and coal. From then on we lay there almost all winter, day and night, in the dark, wet hole. Every Saturday morning, when people were still asleep, Jozef brought us to the house. He gave us white shirts so we would not be distinguishable from the snow, and we dragged ourselves to the house. There we washed up. Mrs. Przysiecka scrubbed and boiled our clothes since we were infected with lice. When it was very dark, we were taken back to the black cellar. Our hiding place was very narrow. We lay squeezed together like sardines. My head was at ltka's feet and her feet at my head? When we wanted to change positions, we had to turn together. Some straw was strewn on the ground. We lay on a blanket and covered ourselves with a feather comforter, which Itka had brought from home. Every day at the same time, Jozef brought a pail, he drew aside the covering of our dugout and we went out, one by one, to relieve ourselves.
One fine morning, in Spring of 1944, the city was surrounded by the German army. S.S. gendarmes searched every house for partisans who had escaped from the woods. The Germans had set fire to the woods, the farmers and their families in the surrounding villages fled; therefore, the Germans concluded that the partisans had crossed the Vistula and were hiding in Zawichost. All the while, Mrs. Przysiecka paced back and forth near the shed where we lay hidden. She wrung her hands and offered up prayers to the "Virgin Mary of Czestochwa". We heard every word and knew what was happening in town. Finally, the Germans came to our yard; shouting, they tore open the shed door and shoved aside the coal and wood with their boots. Had they taken one more step, they would have exposed the covering of our hiding place. But no: they marched out shouting, "Damn Polish swine.”
At that moment, I didn't give a thought to my own life. I trembled with fear for the Przysieckis and begged they'd be spared. These people, who risked their own lives, passed the highest moral test, and no reward can possibly compensate them for their extraordinary humane act.
If those wild beasts - human only in form – had found us, they would have shot us along with the Przysieckis - there were many such incidents in Poland during the Nazi occupation.
I shall relate another interesting episode involving Jozef and his mother. The following incident occurred in June 1944. Mrs. Przysiecka had an unofficially adopted daughter, an orphan, whose name was Karola. We knew Karola very well - she had even helped Jozef dig our hiding-place in the shed. Karola had fallen in love with a certain young man and told Mrs. Przysiecka she'd like to marry hire. Mrs. Przysiecka was not happy with the match and tried to dissuade Karola from marrying him. But she could not convince her. Mrs. Przysiecka became very uneasy; she was afraid Karola would tell her fiancé about us. Again Mrs. Przysiecka consulted with the Priest. And once more we were transferred to the Parsonage. This time there were huge mice in the attic. They gnawed big chunks out of our bread. We were terrified the mice would also bite us, so we never slept at the same time. While one of us slept, the other kept watch and warded off the mice with a stick.
Meanwhile, during the night, Josef and his mother dug a ditch in the garden. At the time, the Germans had liquidated the Jewish cemetery, which stood in the way of their projected railway line from Dwikozy to Lublin. Jozef collected remnants from the cemetery - pieces of wood and stone - and lay a path from the gate to the ditch which he then covered with stones. An area around the hole was fenced off and designated as a "chicken enclosure” – the "enclosure" would "prevent the chickens from digging up the garden." Jozef also prepared grain and water-troughs for the poultry. When everything was ready, we were brought to our new hiding-place. This was a much larger hole. Jozef had dug up 120 pailfulls of earth; he dumped the soil at a distance so as not to arouse suspicion.
This time the bucket - our "toilet" - was with us. The luxury was fraught with other, no lesser dangers than before: the air vents would suddenly be blocked and we thought we'd choke to death. Often, Mrs. Przysiecka or Jozef couldn't get to us and we went without food or water all day. Mrs. Przysiecka's brother would come to visit or Jozef had to leave in a hurry. Not once did we face imminent death. This was our last hiding-place.
The times grew increasingly more troubled. Since there were no Jews left in the country, Poles became Nazi victims and were seized for forced labor. Every day arduous new regulations were inflicted on the people. The greater the losses the Germans sustained on the front lines, the crueler their behavior toward the civilian population.
The Red Army approached the Vistula. In July 1944 they reached Winiary, a village 4 kilometers from Zawichost on the Sandomierz side - and the village of Jeniesiow on the other side of the Vistula. Only the road to Ozarow was open. The entire population fled to the fields and nearest villages. The Przysieckis, however, hid in the cellar with us. Zawichost became the German fighting position. Mrs. Przysiecka sheltered and treated wounded civilians so as not to be driven out of her home. At the end of September 1944, Mrs. Przysiecka and the sick were given two days' notice to evacuate the house. Very early the following morning, she hastened to our hiding-place and told us "the good news" - we must leave at once. She gave us each 250 zlotys and eight pieces of bread; that is all we had apart from a few personal items Itka had brought from home. She crossed herself, kissed us and we wept together.
Itka, a small, thin girl, came out of the cellar in relatively good health. I had swollen, ailing feet and my general physical condition was very poor. It is a wonder how Itka managed to drag me to Czyzow, the neighboring town. We gave the first farmer we met our 500 zlotys to take us to Ozarow. When we reached Ozarow, Soviet airplanes were flying overhead and the people scattered in all directions. Itka and I were trapped on a side street behind a barn. When the situation returned to normal, we were immediately recognized. People came running to look at us, as though they were witnessing a miracle. Is it possible that two Jewish children are still alive? No one spoke, no one asked questions. They just stared at us in silence.
Night fell. The strict curfew hour arrived and people went on their way. Itka and I remained behind the barn. By now I couldn't even stand up. The cold had swelled up my feet even more than before. All we needed now was to be discovered by the German patrol. At least it would put an end to our suffering. Itka wept and I begged her to leave me. Her feet are sound and whole, I said, she must go on by herself. If she traveled from town to town she might survive and live to see the liberation of Poland.
We heard footsteps - a civilian approached the barn. He spoke at once. "I saw you during the day and I came to offer you my help. If you came to Ozarow you must have a particular place to stay and I sincerely promise to help you get there."
I thanked him and said I couldn't entrust our lives to him, not because of myself, but my friend's life was much more valuable. He took leave of us and went but a short distance. Then he turned back and tried to convince me of his earnest and sincere desire to assist us. He told us he had fallen in love with a Jewish girl who had come from the Lodz ghetto with her parents to Ozarow. The day the Jews of Ozarow were deported, he and his father were detained out of town. Thus they lost the opportunity to rescue them. Therefore, he'd like to soothe his conscience by helping us.
Itka cried, kissed me and begged me to accept his offer. I finally agreed on one condition. When I'd say "enough", he must put me down on the ground and leave. He gave his word. He lifted me up over his shoulders like a sack of flour. We had to cross the highway, elude the guards, and then proceed through fields and alleys. He carried me on his back over a kilometer.
Marysia's brother lived in the last house on Kolejowa Street. Several times the man was obliged to stop and rest. When I said "enough", he set me down on the ground. He told us his name when we parted, but I don't remember it now. And he left. With great exertion and strain, I crawled on all fours until we finally reached Ola's house. By this time, Marysia's brother, Jozef, had been killed by the fascist guerrillas. Her mother died a natural death. As we lay beneath the window, I heard people talking in the house, but I didn't recognize their voices. I was breathless - afraid to knock on the door. Finally, I mustered courage and knocked. Ola recognized my knock, and when 1 identified myself, she came right out and summoned her boarder to assist her. They stood me up. I hung on their shoulders, and they carried me into the house. Relatives of the Ziemniaks, a. couple with a child from a country village near the front, lodged with Ola. They lived in the kitchen, while Ola and her son, Kaziek, occupied the second room. Ola made tea and fed us. She lay me down on the sofa, my old sleeping place, and quietly made up a bed for Kaziek and Itka under the table.
Ola had a friend, a neighbor who was in love with her. After the liberation she married him. She sent Kaziek out to fetch Janek. The man who had carried me to the house proved to be a friend of Janek's. For as long as I stayed with Ola, he visited me from time to time and assisted me in need. The following morning we were in a frightful state. A German officer marched down the streets with a drum and ordered everybody out of their homes, and to leave the doors wide open. Panic set in: young people began to run away wherever possible, mainly to the neighboring country villages. I remained with Kaziek and the child. Naturally, Ola told Itka to flee as well. When the armed German entered our house, I pointed to my foot in sign language and he left immediately.
A short while later, the German returned and said, "I am a doctor. If I find that you're lying, I’ll shoot you." After examining my foot, he wrote a prescription and left a document which stated that I was unfit for work.
Itka ran toward Zawichost. On the way she met Mrs. Przysiecka. She was traveling to Ozarow with the sick and wounded. Mrs. Przysiecka bid her climb up on the wagon and brought her back to Ozarow. I never saw Itka again. Apparently, she sought shelter with a Zawichost family who promised to hide her. After a while they handed her over to the Germans. In their attempt to force her to reveal my whereabouts, the Germans drove her around the city and tortured her. But she did not betray me. They shot her. Ola was now afraid to keep me in her house and confided in a neighbor; she told the woman I'm Jewish. The neighbor then moved me to the Kwiecinskis, a well-to-do family, for whom I sewed linen and clothes.
Several days before the New Year, Mrs. Kowalska, a family acquaintance, arrived from Ostrowiec. Originally from Warsaw, Mrs. Kowalska settled in Ozarow at the time of the occupation. Later she moved to Ostrowiec. She and her husband engaged in trade; they procured clothing articles in Warsaw, mainly from the ghetto, and in exchange supplied their customers with foodstuffs. This time she came to the Kwiecinskis to purchase provisions for the holidays. She cooked and baked as well. After some negotiating with my employer, Mrs. Kowalska hired me to work for her and look after her two-year-old son.
The day before the New Year, they loaded everything on the wagon, her hired hand as well, and we drove off toward Ostrowiec. When we reached the woods, some 2 kilometers from Ozarow, we were stopped by a German patrol. They took hold of the horses’ reins and pointed the way to the woods. There we encountered a long line of wagons and people who had also been detained. At once we were ordered to turn around and head back to the city. It was a cold but lovely morning. Mrs. Kwiecinska had dressed me warmly - I wore a heavy overcoat and white woolen kerchief around my head. As I sat beside Mrs. Kowalska, several thoughts occurred to me.
I knew I must act immediately and under no circumstances go along with Mrs. Kowalska to German Headquarters. I tell her I'm Jewish and ask for some money - I didn't possess a groschen - she gives me money, I get off the wagon, approach a soldier and engage him in conversation. I offer him money and ask his permission to return home to my children. My mother, I say, will stay with the wagon and that should suffice. But I only aggravated the situation. I am forced to climb back up on the wagon while he watches me carefully. He doesn't take his eyes off me.
Understandably. Mrs. Kowalska is very agitated. She trembles with fear. Soon we reach the city. The wagons turn down the street toward German Headquarters. The sidewalks are very narrow. The shops, their windows frozen over, stand one beside the other. In order to confuse the soldier,
I remove my kerchief and toss it into the wagon. I keep my eyes on the soldier. While a man comes out of a bakery, I quickly slide off the wagon, slip into the shop and ask for a roll. I stand at the window and note that, fortunately, the wagons are ignoring the shop and drive by. Neither is the soldier looking for me. I pay for the roll and leave. The streets are quiet; in those days you didn't see a person outside. I returned to the Kwiecinskis and told them what had happened.
Her son-in-law went directly to German Headquarters. He learned that the wagons and their drivers were requisitioned by the German Army for whom they worked all day. After Mrs. Kowalska had freed herself of me, she acted impulsively; she stood up to the Germans, demanding her release since she has a small child and must bring home food for the holidays. For this, Mrs. Kowalska was severely beaten; they confiscated her merchandise and sent her to "Chrapanow", a labor camp near Ozarow.
The Kwiecinski family received the New Year in an oppressive atmosphere. They resolved to send me to Ostrowiec the following rooming in order to notify Mr. Kowalski of what had happened. The Kwiecinskis packed up some of the food they had prepared for the holidays and gave it to me. The following morning they hitched horses and wagon, and I drove off with one of the hired hands. This time we arrived safely.
Promptly, Mr. Kowalski drove to Ozarow in this same wagon to rescue his wife. I remained with the child. The Kowalskis boarded with a very fine family, a mother and daughter. Two weeks later the Kowalskis returned from "Chrapanow". She hadn't told her husband I'm Jewish. While they resumed their business and drove to markets, I took charge of the household.
I remained with the Kowalskis until the liberation. When the offensive was launched on January 17, 1945 everybody in the house hid in the cellar. Before the Germans evacuated the city, they shot civilians, destroyed factories and shops and confiscated all the merchandise. On the third morning it became very quiet. The janitor of our building was the boldest among us - he said he'd go out to investigate the situation. When he returned with the good news – the Red Army had entered the city - a great cry of rejoicing broke out. We hugged and kissed each other. That was the happiest moment of my life.
I went out on the street to see the Red Army soldiers with my own eyes. They were the infantry troops - their coats, hats, boots and faces were one color - gray with dust. I kissed them and gave them cigarettes.
When my rejoicing was spent, I returned to the house, took the child in my arms and told everyone I'm Jewish. I wept all day. Demonstrations and parades took place on the streets; fiery speeches were heard. The next morning, I decided to go to Sandomierz, which had been liberated six months earlier. I figured that if anyone from Zawichost were still alive, he would probably be there. The first to arrive in Sandomierz was Mordechai Cohen, my dear friend. A gentile Zawichost family had hidden him. (To my deep sorrow, Mordechai died three years ago in Israel where he made his home after the War.) Yossel Shulman, his wife and youngest daughter, were alive. Their eldest daughter and three sons had perished.
Two or three days later, while Mrs. Shulman and I were sitting near the stove, we heard a knock on the door. My eldest brother entered - the very one I had visited in the Sandomierz ghetto. He had worked in an ammunitions plant, first at Skarzysko and later in Czestochowa. When the Red Army liberated Czestochowa, he didn't wait for them to open the factory gates, but leaped over the fence and in his dirty uniform ran on foot all the way to Sandomierz. The Shulmans burned his louse-ridden clothes and outfitted him from head to foot. My brother and his wife now live in Israel.
After a separation of nine years I was reunited with my husband, who after serving in Spain, made his way tack to Poland and fought with the Polish Army. We've been residing in Montreal, Canada for 20 years. Our daughter, a practicing psychologist, is married to a physician and we have a four-year-old grandson.
1. Zofia’s maiden name was Helman.
2. The above translation from Yiddish was done by Aviva Ravel. The original is at Yad Vashem.
3. As a result of this story, the Zawichost woman, Mrs. Przysiecka, and the priest, Father ????, were presented “Righteous Gentile” awards by Israel. An award is now being proposed for “Janek”, Jan Jasinski, of 91 Kolejowa St., Ozarow. “Ola”, Ola Zemniak, in the story married Janek.
4. Zofia’s daughter, Margaret, born in 1946, lives in Montreal.
*These identity cards were issued by the Germans