Chapter 1. Limits of starvation – a personal experience1
I was born in Lwów, Poland. At the start of the World War II, I was 10 years old. Three years later, in December 1942, I escaped from the Jewish ghetto. Equipped with forged documents under an assumed name Józef Balicki, I reached Warsaw, where I tried to pass as a Christian Pole (Fig. 1). I was 13 years old.
Fig. 1. Forged school identification card issued in Zborów, 1939.
My situation quickly became complicated, and during the first 4 months in Warsaw, I hid in seventeen different places. By May 1943 my uncle Lorenc was lucky enough to find a Polish family that was willing to take me into hiding, along with my uncle Gabriel, and another Jewish couple, man and woman, also from Lwów.
The Bajer family gave us shelter and fed us. We paid them. For a year and a half, until the autumn of 1944 we did not leave their apartment even once. At the end of July 1944 the Bajers went on a 2-day holiday in the country. They left us enough food to last for 2 days. The day after they left, 1st August 1944, the Warsaw Uprising began. For the sake of clarity I must point out that this was not the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto Uprising that took place in April 1943, but the Polish National Uprising of Armia Krajowa, which started in August 1944 and lasted 63 days.
Because of the uprising, the Bajer family could not return to Warsaw. We were in their apartment alone, with no outside contacts and without any information about what was happening around us. We had never met our neighbors, and they did not know about us. And we had no food supply.
We heard and felt explosions and constant shooting. We were on the second floor of the three-story apartment house. Our building was hit several times and sustained considerable damage, but it did not collapse. We were not afraid of the bombings. On the contrary, the fighting in the streets gave us hope that we might be liberated. But we were hungry.
The food the Bajers left us was supposed to suffice for two days. We made it last for four. In addition, we found some potatoes and a little flour in the kitchen, but after a few days that too was gone. Further search revealed a small paper bag with dry peas from which we made soup. The soup should have lasted for several days. Unfortunately, there were no refrigerators at that time in Poland, and the summer of 1944 was exceptionally hot. The soup quickly spoiled. After two days it stank badly. Despite the bad smell we continued to eat it, for which we paid dearly. We all got severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal pain. The next day there was such unbearable stench in the apartment that we had no choice but to throw out what was left of the soup. But the damage to our bowels was already done and our diarrhea persisted. We all were very ill and extremely weak.
Then came another surprise. It had to do with Mrs. Bajer’s little niece, Hania, 5 years old, who lived with the Bajers. She was extremely thin, nearly transparent, and hardly had any appetite. She never managed to finish eating the slices of bread she was given. Mrs. Bajer, a deeply religious woman, could not bear to throw bread away, even those slim remains that Hania could not finish. “Bread is the gift of God and must not be thrown away” she used to say. She put the remains of Hania’s bread into paper bags, and stored them in all sorts of places. In our constant search for food, we found the bags. The bread was covered with a thick layer of dust and mold which we could not remove. We ate it all.
By that time we were unable to think or talk about anything else than food. The end of September was approaching, completing two months of near total starvation. I recalled an earlier time of the war, June 1941, when the Germans were bombing Lwów and we took cover in shelters. There was no possibility to cook meals, so we ate sandwiches with dry salami. Now, as I lay in bed, I started sucking the corner of my bed sheet, imagining that I was eating that wonderful salami. I would gladly have exchanged several years of my life for just one slice of that salami. But dreams could not provide the much-needed calories. Our physical weakness was extreme. Rising from our beds became nearly impossible.
The last edible thing we had were a few pills of an artificial sweetener (saccharine), some vinegar and tap water. We did not know whether the water was suitable for drinking, but we drank it anyway. We mixed the vinegar with water and dissolved the pills of saccharine, making a kind of “lemonade” that had absolutely no nutritional value. For each one of us there was a small bottle, about 100 ml of that “lemonade” – our last supper. Raising the small bottle to my mouth took a great effort. I had to use both of my hands.
We realized that we were dying from starvation. We discussed leaving the apartment and disclosing ourselves to the neighbors as Jews. What could happen? Perhaps the Poles would feed us. And if they gave us away to the Germans or killed us, so what? We were dying anyway, so why prolong the agony? We took a formal vote and reached a decision: we were going to disclose ourselves.
Tosia, the woman among us, volunteered to go to the neighbors to tell them that there were four Jews hiding in their building, dying from starvation. Tosia was ill – she had a heart disease. In fact, she died from her disease shortly after the war ended. But on that day, 30th September 1944, she, the strongest of us all, walked down three flights to the basement and then three flights back up.
She returned accompanied by three men – a kind of a local emergency authority. They were deeply shocked to see us – four skeletons covered by skin, in dirty clothes and uncut hair. My weight at the time, at 15 years of age, was 28 kg (64 lbs).
The three men were compassionate and generous. They explained to us that at the moment we had nothing to worry about. As long as the Uprising lasted we were not under German rule, but in independent Poland. Then they left. After a few minutes one of them came back with some flour, some sugar, and one small uncooked potato. He told us that from now on, we would partake of the general food distribution, miserable as that was. Everybody in Warsaw was hungry.
Tosia made some kind of pita from the flour. We sliced the small potato into eight slices – two slices for each one of us. We fried the potato on water, because we had no oil or any kind of fat. This was the best potato I had ever eaten in my entire life, before or after.
Armia Krajowa, the Polish underground, surrendered on 2nd October. One of the conditions of surrender was that the entire population of Warsaw would be evacuated. This was in preparation for the total systematic destruction of the city. The evacuation started on the same day, 2nd October. Our section of the city was evacuated on 4th October (Fig. 2).
We were marched to the Pruszków transfer camp, where a selection was conducted: those able to work were sent to Germany to work in the military industry or in agriculture. Children, the elderly and the sick were sent to refugee camps in western Poland.
Fig. 2. March to the Pruszków selection camp. The boy in shorts is the author of this book. Photograph taken by the International Red Cross.
The transfer point from Armia Krajowa to the Nazis was marked by two flags: the Polish and the Nazi-German. Every person received, from the International Red Cross, one loaf of bread. In addition, every child received a 300 ml can of high-fat concentrated milk.
I knew that after my prolonged fasting it was dangerous for me to eat a large amount of food, and that I should eat and drink just a little bit at a time. But my hunger was overwhelming. I could not restrain myself, and within minutes I ate all my bread and drank all my milk. I paid for this dearly with a most severe, incessant bloody diarrhea.
At the selection in the Pruszków camp I was classified as unable to work and was sent, with all the other sick people, to a refugee camp in Częstochowa2. We were pushed into cattle wagons of a very slow train. There were no seats. Everybody in the group was either sick or elderly, but we all had to stand. It was not possible to sit even on the floor, because there was simply no room. The distance from Pruszków to Częstochowa is only 260 km (160 miles), but our train was very slow. When the train departed, it was still daylight. By the time we reached Częstochowa it was already the next day.
My diarrhea was a mixture of blood and mucus, incessant and very severe. There was no toilet on the train, not even a pail or a bucket. All my excretions went into my pants. My skin, irritated by the feces, burned. I was exhausted. By the time we reached Częstochowa I felt half-dead.
From the train, we were taken in open trucks to the refugee camp. Before we reached the camp, our truck stopped at a city hospital where I, and a few others were admitted.
At the hospital I had a bath. My first bath in years. At the Bajer home in Warsaw there was no bath and no shower. We washed ourselves, in cold water, at the kitchen sink. Before that, in the ghetto, it was the same. I was placed in a bed with clean sheets. I had three proper meals a day. And no less important: the doctors and nurses were all polite and smiling.
I told them that I became separated from my parents during the uprising. I did not tell them that my parents were murdered much earlier because they were Jews. For them I was a lost Polish child – one of their own.
* * *45 years later. 1989. I am already a veteran Israeli, a physician – graduate of the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School, and a surgeon, chief of the Department of Surgery in one of the government hospitals. Poland is organizing an international surgery convention. I decided to go.
I arrived in Warsaw in August 1989, exactly 45 years after the uprising. It was evening. I was tired from the trip and went to sleep. The next morning I made my way to the Bajer apartment, where I had hidden for a year and a half, and where I had nearly died from starvation. I went up to the second floor and knocked on the door. The Bajers had been gone for many years, but the woman who lived in that apartment let me in, listened to my story, and allowed me to look around. Before I left, she suggested that I go to see Dr. Mroczek; “He still lives here on the first floor,” she said. I told her that I had never met the doctor because I had lived there illegally. But she insisted that Dr. Mroczek would remember the Bajer family and that I should go and talk to him.
I went down one floor. There was a name plate on the door: Dr. Edmund Mroczek – Otolaryngologist. I knocked and a young woman opened the door. I introduced myself and she let me in to see her grandfather. An old man was resting on a bed. Later I found out that he was 87 years old. We started to talk. I told him about my problems during the uprising and he told me about his. While we were talking, it occurred to me that I had seen him before. He did not seem a complete stranger. There was something singular in his voice and eyes, something intriguing and persistent. Then it dawned upon me that he was the man who gave us that small potato – the best potato of my life. Indeed, it was him, the head of the House Committee during the uprising. He had been in charge of the food distribution. That evening I visited his son, who gave me his father’s photograph and some more information.
Fig. 3. Dr. Edmund Mroczek, who fed us when we were dying from starvation.
After the war Dr. Mroczek became the founder of pediatric laryngology in Poland (Fig. 3). He died a short time after I visited him. I couldn’t help thinking that he waited for me, so that I could come and see him at least once before his death. For this I am very grateful to him. His son, Dr. Janusz Mroczek is a physician, a surgeon, chief of surgery in one of the hospitals in Warsaw. He is 10 years my junior. When I was 14, he was 4 years old. For a year and a half we lived in the same apartment house, just one floor apart, but we never met, and never knew of the other’s existence.
As a result of my prolonged starvation I have severe osteoporosis. During the years I sustained some rather unusual fractures. I fractured my femoral neck at age 27 when I was intern at Hadassah. A few years ago, I coughed and felt sudden pain in my chest. One of my ribs was broken.
What are the limits of starvation? How much longer could we have lived, had we not received help from Dr. Mroczek and his committee? What are the limits of human suffering? How much can one suffer and still remain human?
I spent the first two years after the war in the Children’s Home in Zatrzebie, on the outskirts of Warsaw. There were in Zatrzebie close to two hundred children survivors of the Holocaust. Nearly all experienced some degree of starvation during the years of war. To many this remained a constant life accompaniment. Some children developed a permanent fear of starvation. During meals they would take extra slices of bread and later hide them under their bed mattresses. Just in case. It did not take long for the instructors in Zatrzebie to discover the hidden caches. They approached the problem with gentleness, trying to help the children, while avoiding any additional psychological trauma. Nevertheless, some of these children could not be cured.
#1 Based on presentation at the 6th Nahariya Conference on Morbidity and Medicine During the Holocaust, Nahariya, Israel, 10 May 2006; and on the Invited Speaker Lecture, at the 18th Israeli Medical Association World Fellowship International Conference, Jerusalem, Israel, 11-15 April 2007.
#2 Pronounced Tchenstokhova