Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Halina Birenbaum – Life as Hope

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Halina Birenbaum

Life as Hope

The story of my Holocaust years

Having survived many tragedies during the years of the Holocaust I met my freedom with an empty heart. I saw the vastness of orphanhood and ruins and ashes in the post-war Warsaw, Poland, but nothing around me or inside me. At last, I held a whole loaf of bread in my hands and could slice off it as much as I wanted to, but I felt hemmed in by the four walls of my home and within myself. I did not want to be alike my mother before the war, and be only taking care of home, cooking and cleaning. I was so much older than she had been, with all my fifteen years of age! In the years of the war and German occupation I had travelled a huge distance from my childhood to an old age and to death. So many times had I stared at the eyes of death, while petrified by fear and tension of the penultimate moment; so many people were burned alive in front of my eyes! How with all that can you enter the ordinary everydayness of freedom, while at the same time you have been imprisoned by those images and voices?
I always dreamed that if I survived this hell, I would settle on an uninhabited island. If I survived..., which in my case was highly improbable since Hitler's laws condemned the entire Jewish nation to the Holocaust, starting from the elderly, the sick and the children.... Even in death camps I stayed illegally as in there they kept alive only the young and the healthy, and even that depended on how many of them they actually needed for slave labour. The rest was sent to gas chambers. My life and my survival turned out to have been a series of chances... And it has remained so till today.
* * *

My father's name was Jakub Grynsztejn. In Auschwitz I was registered and imprisoned as Hala Grynsztejn. The father of my oldest brother Marek, Abram Balin died when Marek was a few months old. Later, my mother remarried. Only two of our entire family, Marek and me, survived the war and the Holocaust. In 1945, in Warsaw Marek registered me as his sister and obtained a birth certificate to me for the name Balin as all our documents had burnt. Ever since in all documents my maiden name reads Balin. But now, at least in this account of my Shoah years, I want to leave a record of my father Jakub Grynsztejn.
* * *

In September 1939 I was to turn ten and to advance to the third grade of my elementary school. I had loving parents, two older brothers, grandparents on my mother's and my father's sides and a lot of relatives. We were a rather poor family. Marek, my brother, eleven years older than me, studied medicine, and was an exceptionally gifted and hard-working student, while Hilek, who was seven years my senior, studied at a secondary craft school. My father was a commercial representative; my mother took care of our home and helped the household by earning money with crocheting. That year, upon the rumours of the approaching war, my mother's parents and sisters came to Warsaw. They thought it would be easier to survive in the capital rather than in their small town of Zelechow. My parental family stayed in Biala Podlaska, about 200 kilometres east of Warsaw.
On September 1, 1939, alarm sirens wailed in Warsaw and I never went to school again. The sky over Warsaw was covered with squadrons of German Messerschmitt aircraft raining down destruction by dropping fire bombs and strafing people. Huge fires broke out and there was next to nothing to extinguish them with. Houses collapsed, burying people in their thousands. Such an inferno lasted for more than three weeks. There was nothing to eat, no water... People pulled out canned cucumbers and preserves from the burning shops and drew polluted water from the Vistula River – succumbing on their way to bombs, shells, and shrapnel. Exploding bombs by day and night, the glow of fires, the stench of burning houses, and the stink of corpses decaying under the rubbles, the terrifying roars of sirens and the loudspeaker warnings: "Attention, attention, coming, all clear, coming, coming"! ...
On the most solemn of the Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur – the Atonement Day, the Germans bombed most of the Warsaw’s quarter inhabited mostly by Jews and our street too began to burn. We ran out from our burning apartment building, having grasped anything we could carry. We sheltered in an acquaintance's cellar. It was terribly crowded and stank with mould, reeked with human exhalations and projected around an indescribable depression. Some people lost their minds from this horror and mumbled incomprehensibly. As I watched the adults and read from the faces and agitation of every one of them, I rapidly matured to face the inconceivable reality of the world that was just collapsing all around us.
At last, silence ensued. The silence of defeat, devastation and mourning. On the streets, people walked with big bundles on their shoulders. We also were in the wave of those seeking a shelter. It was the first time we saw Germans. They marched arrogantly through the streets of Warsaw in ruins, seemingly like an invincible curtain of death that now had fallen perhaps for centuries to come. People jostled for bread. German soldiers pulled out Jews from the line-ups and beat them mercilessly.
We found a room in an apartment of a dentist, Fania Geszychter, who was paralysed as the result of her shock during the bombing. Her husband, Izydor, also a dentist, had died before the war. She, her two daughters, Bela (24), Elusia (15), and her son Tadek (22), a dental technician, now all lived in one room, while four other rooms and the kitchen were being rented out. The youngest of her children, Elusia, two years my senior, and Erna Zajdman, a girl one year younger than me, who lived with her parents, Fajge and Benjamin, in the adjacent room, befriended me. We continued to live in this apartment until the deportation.
Soon, the Germans ordered all Jews over twelve years of age to wear on their right arms white armbands with blue Stars of David, to discern and separate them from other people. They rounded-up Jews, and executed them on a slightest pretext. Jews were forbidden to travel by train or tram, to study, to pray in synagogues, or gather in larger groups. The curfew from 7 p.m. till dawn was imposed on Jews as well as an unconditional ban on being outside their homes in the curfew hours. During the day, huge crowds filled the streets. People sold their clothes, bedding, and underwear in order to be able to buy bread (that each day grew more expensive and worse), frozen potatoes, porridge oats, and damp firewood. Just to survive one more day – in the hope that the war would soon end with a German defeat and that everything would then return to normal.
The horror, however, grew with each passing day. Illness and hunger spread quickly. Time after time terrifying screams were heard from the streets: "Germans!" – and triumphant trucks roared the crowded streets, SS-men jumped down, shooting at those running away, stopping men with hand waving and shouts "Halt!", beating them up and loading on the trucks. SS-men entered Jewish apartments, pulled out and took furniture and more valuable items and looted goods from shops, dragged away fathers and sons, the shop-owners, and shot them dead.
* * *

Rumours that a ghetto would be made for the Jews of Warsaw came true as our worst nightmare. In the late autumn of 1940 a tall wall enclosed us completely to separate us from the "Aryan" side of the city. One day, the Germans ordered all Jews to leave their flats across Warsaw within one hour and gather in a small area in the poorest part of Warsaw. Subsequently, they forced Jews from other towns and shtetls in the Warsaw area to walk to the Warsaw Ghetto, killing the sick persons in their beds and the weak on their way to Warsaw.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews became homeless and destitute. Cramped in impossibly overcrowded schools and former public buildings, now called the "Points", they were dying en masse from hunger, filth, and epidemics. At the Points there was not enough room for all the exiles, so they were laying on the streets, in yards, on staircases. All of them begging, being hunger swollen and frostbitten. It was not possible to keep pace with the number of corpses to be removed from the sidewalks. Those were laid where they had died, covered with newspapers, until a cart came to pick them up to throw into a common grave.
I was part of this crowd, growing up within it, and learning about life amongst the total devastation. I played with other children, pushing people on the overcrowded streets, beside the newspaper-covered corpses. Some time later, our house committee engaged us to collect money for the beggars and the starving neighbours. We fastened paper ribbons on passer-by's lapels, to entice them to give us a few grosze (cents). Sometimes, we would perform at evening parties in the homes of wealthier Jewish families, reciting poems and singing pre-war and Ghetto songs. Obviously, only children and youngsters who were not yet starved or debilitated participated in these charitable activities.
At that time our family was not yet starving. Marek worked at a Jewish hospital, earning little money by performing minor medical procedures. Mr. Stanislaw Strojwas, an engineer, the Polish owner of the canned food factory "Maggi", for whom my father had worked before the war at delivering raw products from southern Poland, occasionally managed to sent to us, into the Ghetto, beans, brown sugar, and canned food rather than money, because money would not buy very much as the prices rocketed by the hour. Mr. Strojwas' factory was situated just at the Ghetto's perimeter, which made such transfers possible from time to time. We mostly sold the goods he gave us in order to be able to buy bread, potatoes and firewood.
In such conditions I did continue my learning. Under the supervision and quite rigorous instructions of my oldest brother, Marek, in three years I managed to work through the curriculum from the third grade of elementary school up to the first grade of grammar-school. Marek also taught me French. The latter was clearly intended as a break from the harsh reality, or perhaps in the hope of living through to see the end of the war and then avoiding finding myself being behind in my education. I read a lot, even poetry, which I learned by heart very quickly. I found this to be an escape from the prevailing horrors and from the constant flux of horrifying news about German victories in all war fronts, and rumours of mass-murdering all Jews and constructing steam or gas chambers for mass extermination in Chelmno, Bełzec – and at the most horrible place of all – Auschwitz. I was eleven when I began to write about things that were happening around us, about my inability to cope with this immense terror, with the more and more bad news and adults' hope-dashing comments.
Two windows of our room were shuttered permanently with plywood sheets and the only light came from the flame of a gas burner, and later on from a smelly carbide lamp. We slept on the floor: my parents and brothers on two mattresses, and I, as the youngest, on a quilt spread on the floor (for my mother had always taught me to relinquish comfort to my elders, against which I used to rebel). After all the Jews had been forced into the Ghetto, our acquaintance gave us a couch, a table and four chairs. Again, I had to give up a chair, as there was no fifth one. However, I now had a mattress as my brothers slept on the couch.
Luckily, our street was located inside the Ghetto and, unlike the majority of Jews, we did not have to find another accommodation. Several times, the Germans reduced the size of the Ghetto and people were forced to simply stay on the streets, dying there by their dozens from hunger and exposure. The dentist's family was starving too almost from the very beginning because no tenants paid their rents and nobody cared anymore about his or her teeth.
Two more years had passed in the Ghetto. I frequently dreamed that one morning I would wake up to find that the Germans are gone from Warsaw and have totally disappeared from our life. As suddenly as they had burst into it.
In July 1942, wall posters in Polish and German announced that all Jews would be relocated to work in the East. Only few would be allowed remain in the Ghetto, i.e. those needed by the Germans as workers in factories that produced uniforms and boots for the German army and several factories on the "Aryan" side. The Jews who were "employed" would receive their work permits. The latter soon turned out to be the only way to secure one’s right to life. Consequently, large bribes were paid for such documents. Panic and despair pervaded the entire Ghetto. The horror was deepened by the news of the suicide of Mr. Adam Czerniakow, the chairman of the Jewish Community Council, who had always been obedient to Germans, but finally he refused to sign the order to deport people from the Ghetto. His suicidal death gave rise to the most horrific suspicions. All food disappeared immediately. Words like raid, action, round-up, blockade, deportation, wagons (railcars), Umschlag (the loading zone to Treblinka) have now become our only reality, the only reality of our lives. At first, we knew nothing about Treblinka. The loading zone was a long, enclosed site at the Stawki Square, in front of a school. My brother, Hilek, had attended this school until the war broke out. Every day, empty cattle railcars were being rolled in there. Into these wagons the Germans loaded Jews they rounded-up for deportation. Initially, they sent to Treblinka the exiles from the "Points", beggars from the streets, the sick, the disabled, and people who were visibly swollen from hunger and frostbites.
I did ask no questions, made no remarks and nothing surprised me any longer – everything could be smelled out in the air or read from people's faces, from the ever-present breath of death and fear of dying. Even small children understood the necessity of silence, of burying themselves in a thick darkness of their own forbidden existence, of silencing their breaths and heartbeats and thus to avoid being discovered and deported to that enigmatic yet horrible "East"...
We put on our best clothes and shoes: a several layers of the underwear, frocks, sweaters – in case they would catch us and deport to some terrible camp, so that we might barter there our clothes for some food. Mother put a little bit of flour, cereal, sugar cubes and a bottle of cooking oil in her basket and we bade farewell to our neighbours. What we did not know then was that it was a farewell forever.
Aunt Fela Moszkowicz, my mother's younger sister, lived in an apartment at another street, on the fifth floor. We thought it was so high up that they would not come there to drag us along to the Umschlag... My mother also wanted to be together with her beloved sister at this horrible time. Earlier, my uncle, Majorek Moszkowicz, was dragged by the Germans from a train with a group of Jews and they all were shot dead, despite their valid passes. Kuba Moszkowicz, my cousin, who was at Hilek's age, was deported to work at Starachowice, south of Warsaw, where he disappeared without a trace. All that happened before the transports to Treblinka commenced... Only my aunt and her daughter Halina, two years my senior, remained alive. From that moment on, we kept together.
The round-ups usually began about 8 o'clock in the morning and lasted till the evening. Each day the streets of the Ghetto were blocked, and thousands of Jews in columns were dragged along to the Umschlag. The Germans broke into all buildings and apartments on each floor, meticulously sniffed out all well masked hideouts, every nooks and crannies in cellars and lofts. With crowbars they smashed the doors and barricades with crowbars, and, beating and shooting, they rushed people outside into the columns set up in the middle of the street, where from they dragged them along to the cattle railcars under the guard of armed SS-men. Each day fifteen to seventeen thousand Jews, as many as the wagons could possibly hold, were taken away. Such raids continually intensified and more and more people were deported. Streets emptied, pavements and roads became stained with blood. Ghostly buildings and flats were left abandoned, filled only with scattered belongings, letters, photos, and feathers flying everywhere from pillows and quilts ripped apart during the searches. Locomotives’ whistles pierced my heart like knives: it is there you will go too, this is what awaits you – some horrible terminal station, the end of everything!
My father got a job at a shoe-making workshop thanks to a relative of ours, for we had no money to bribe. He received a certificate that would also cover his wife and child (i.e. my mother and me) as those of a "productive" Jew. The Jewish shop manager, Abram Kijewski, was the pre-war owner of this shoe factory but it turned out that such a promising and profitable position did not save him, his wife and their three children from their death in Treblinka. No Jew could escape the German omnipotent sentence of extermination.
Marek stayed at the hospital, which was still functioning. It created an illusion that not everybody would be deported, and that some selected individuals would be allowed to continue to live. Marek had an Ausweis, a valid identity document with a work permit stamped in.
Hilek was taken to work at the Umschlag. He wore a metal tag with a number to indicate that he was productive and should not be deported. He had to remove the bodies of those shot or beaten to death while forcibly loaded into the cattle railcars. The horror that showed in his eyes when he returned from work first time immediately advanced me to a new level of my maturity.
I forgot my endless, gut-gnawing hunger, my longing for just another spoonful of dumplings, which Mother cooked in the evening over feeble candles in a neighbouring flat emptied by a deportation; about snatching from her basket an extra lump of sugar that in the hideouts she divided between us every a few hours, so it serve as a medicine. I still do not know, where this small and physically weak woman got the courage and strength from to cook those dumplings.
At that very moment the expression of Hilek's face revealed to me the abyss of human tragedy, in which everything that we had been taught about or what had been handed down onto us through the ages, no longer mattered and was left far behind us. Suddenly, I have had grown in my inner being by generations, as if I would have penetrated the contents of the greatest books of the world, those that were written not by a human hand. I had at once understood the inconceivable and the secret of enduring it – everything else became insignificant and absurdly pitiful. My brother was holding his head in his hands and mumbled: "Do not ask me anything about what they are doing there to human beings!"
I cuddled to my mother in this overcrowded, moulded hiding place of ours. Many times, I tightly clasped her hand, and tensely held my breath, when the drumming of SS-men's boots were heard nearby and their blood-chilling yelling pervaded all around: "Halt Jude!" And then a groan full of pain and echoes of shoots somewhere nearby, but like in me already. Mother's calm, self-control and her stubborn will to live were for me the foundation and framework upon which I could rapidly mature and develop my alertness and the sharpness of my intuition. I have travelled with those through my long and unimaginable journey, through the universal death – to life.
* * *

More weeks had passed, more and more difficult ones, spent in cellars and attics, under the uninterrupted uncertainty and fear, without food, with no possibility to wash, change clothes, take off shoes, with a constant preparedness for the worst to come – the deportation to the East. Hundreds of thousands of Jews had already been sent there, among them all our relatives. The helplessness increased with every passing day.
One day at the dusk we came down from the attic to get some fresh air. At such a late hour they were never doing round-ups. My father had just returned from the workshop, Hilek too, after a whole day at the Umschlagplatz, and we all stood together, exhausted after the day long like eternity.
Suddenly, from all four corners of the street rickshaws materialized from which armed Germans, Lithuanians, Latvians jumped off. Our hiding place under the parching roof instantly became an unreachable paradise of the past epoch...
Their yelling: "HALT!" transfers us immediately to a new and exclusive reality. The four of us have already become the first row of a column instantly swelling with those who just returned from their factories on the Aryan side. It is an ambush for those who work in the "placowka’s" – the Aryan side factories, those who have had the best possible passes.
Potatoes, onions, and sugar, just smuggled into the Ghetto all spill on the road. On both sides of the column our executioners with heavy blows, shooting at us on a slightest forbidden move. I have again advanced in my maturity by a hundred of years. Mother calms us down telling that we are going to an agricultural work; that we are young and healthy, that we are quite safe. I only have to keep telling everybody that I am 17 years old! She pinches my cheeks to make them blush – a proof of my health, and she quickly arranges my braids in a topknot to make me look taller. In a sense all it flatters me and makes me curious...
I feel like a small particle in this large column of people, tense to insanity in a concentrated mill of thoughts and strained nerves. Never before did Mother devote so much attention to me. She is now staring at me as if trying to guess my fate and defend me from it.
They lead us to Umschlagplatz. Thousands of Jews caught during the whole day of the Action. Pushing through the crowd, squeezed throngs, shouts all around. Desperate searching for a hiding place, for water, and for lost children and relatives, so that at least families leave together in the same railcar.
Suddenly, the Germans bring out a machine gun and mount it in the middle of the square, aiming at the crowd. A dead silence slinks – the moment before the ultimate one… Four of us embrace strongly and we look deeply into our eyes, as one does just before departing forever. In a moment, we shall not be anymore. Hilek might leave, since it will be necessary to clean up the square of the corpses, but he stays with us. Father embraces us tightly. Mother steps away a bit, she is looking at me with concentration and love: "everybody has to die once" – she says – "now we will die together, don't be afraid, it will not be terrible"...
Now, I am beyond fear; even death seems to me to be something small and unimportant, compared to the power of the feeling of this last embrace – the fullest possible realization of our humanity that exceeds everything else.
The whistle of a train rolling in pierces the air. Now the machine gun becomes redundant. They run on us with riffle butts, truncheons, and clubs. They shot at this mad crowd being forcibly pushed into the cattle cars: German gendarmes, SS-men, Polish and Jewish policemen. Terrible screams, curses, cry all around. Father says that he will show them his Ausweis at the railcar hatch, and they will certainly release us. Hilek has an Umschlagplatz worker's tag, and he is safe. Mother does not believe in any papers, she grasps me and Hilek by our hands and drags us away as far as possible from the train. Father attempts to convince her to stay, but eventually he follows us not to lose us in the crowd. Now it is of utmost importance that we hold together!
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a pack of Jewish policemen encircles Father. From every direction they jump on him with clubs. For a moment, Father tries with his hands to shield himself from the blows, then he bends down, the clubs striking his back, and he disappears in the human wave. Forever. Such is the last image of him I have had in my eyes for the remainder of my life. I even do not have a picture of my Father.
Hilek starts screaming and begging Mother that we go to the train: "Let that what will happen to all Jews, happen to us too! The Germans know of all the hideouts here, they will kill all of you and then they will order me to carry away your bodies. I do not want to live through such a moment!"
I also have enough of hiding and tension. And I draw my strength from this mass of human beings. But Mother is not listening though: "stupid children", she whispers calmly, "this train means death, we will always have time for it..." Finally everything becomes silent. The three of us remain somewhere in a corner of the zone. Bags on the ground, things scattered and abandoned all around, shoes lost. A terrifying, cemetery-like stillness and emptiness.
Hilek hid us in a sewer canal, where we nearly get suffocated. Not once had he pulled corpses from there. Luckily, it quickly turned out that there was not enough space in the cattle railcars and a handful of the Jews who remained were locked in the police building at the square. We were to wait there until another train arrives next morning. However, at night Mother managed to bribe a Jewish policeman who agreed to lead us out to "freedom" in exchange for her wedding ring, two kilograms of rice, and Father's suit that was left in our hideout in the attic. Quite cheap! The standard price tag for leading somebody out from Umschlagplatz was 10,000 per capita.
Further weeks of round-ups, hiding and suffering followed. Then there came a big round-up and selection on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), called "The Mila Street Trap" ('Kociol' 1) ) that lasted several days, and in which the Germans took thousands of people from the Ghetto. By then, everybody knew that the deportations to the East, the wagons, the Umschlagplatz – simply meant death in the gas chambers of Treblinka! From half a million of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, only several thousands were left alive. We still were among them. But Father no longer.
Nothing but orphanhood, ruins, emptiness. Everywhere only tatters of families, tatters of lives. Mother worked in a "shop", sewing uniforms for the German army and I, crouching under her sewing machine, stitched buttons, to get my right to live too. The Ghetto was now reduced but to a few isolated streets and changed into a labour camp. Hilek and Marek now worked at a "placowka" in the Aryan side. They used to bring in food obtained for the belongings smuggled out from flats whose former inhabitants had been deported to Treblinka. The Ghetto Jews were forbidden to remain outdoors at all except for one hour in the morning while going to work under guard and one hour in the evening while coming back.
All the time, SS-men roamed the Ghetto, ravaging, shooting at random, and setting ambushes in attics where people arranged secret passages to other streets.
Hilek married. The parents of his wife Hela (who came from Bydgoszcz) were taken in the September selection on Mila Street. During that selection we hid in the attic, since Mother had lost her Ausweis. It was a stroke of luck, because, when her "shop's" turn came, the Germans stopped selecting, and just rushed everybody to the wagons... After the September selection, her Ausweis was found among things scattered in our flat.
Rumours spread that the Germans would finally liquidate the Ghetto in the spring of 1943. Warsaw was finally to become Judenrein – clean of Jews! The surviving Jews started eagerly building underground bunkers in a hope that now, after the German defeat at Stalingrad, the war would not last much longer and it would be possible to survive therein. The bunkers were equipped with bunks, food supply, water, ventilators, and iron crowbars to break away from the railcars. At some places weapons and poison were stashed. Anything but Treblinka! A Jewish uprising in the Ghetto was being prepared at the earnest. Single surviving members of murdered families had nothing to lose, and there was no one anymore to be endangered because of their resistance.
Before the Passover of 1943, we moved to the so-called "Small Ghetto", on Mila Street, where Mother managed to get a place in a bunker. She had to pay for it.
The German guards at the placowka, where we planned to mix into people to get to Mila Street (where our bunker was) in the evening were especially brutal and Marek decided that we would not take with us the food supply we had prepared. He would bring it on the next day... Mother took only her small basket with flour, sugar cubes, and a bottle of cooking oil, which did attract no attention. On Mila Street, we suddenly bumped into Erna and her mother. The living ghosts from the near yet so distant past just like us. They both tried to persuade me to stay with them overnight as we had so much to talk about! But Marek sternly opposed: "we must not stay away from each other, as we do not know what the next hour brings"... And then Marek went back to our former flat to bring the food we left there.
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