Chapter 3. Fear and horror
The horrors of the Holocaust left many of its survivors psychologically scarred. Fears of death, starvation, isolation, loss of freedom, and loss of family may express themselves in a variety of symptoms and unusual behavior. Several examples of such Holocaust-related symptoms and behavioral deviations are described in this chapter.
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Hiding at Muranowska Street
April 1943. At that time, I was posing as a Polish Christian, hiding in the apartment of an elderly Polish couple, the Gronckis. Besides me, there was another Jewish family – a mother and her two grown-up daughters – hiding there as well. The Groncki apartment was at 4 Muranowska Street, the windows facing the Warsaw Ghetto wall.
Muranowska Street was part of the Ghetto’s northern border. The southern side of the street was inside the Ghetto, the northern side was "Aryan”. The wall was located on the southern sidewalk, leaving the road free for the Aryans (Fig. 11).
Fig. 11. Warsaw Ghetto – the northern part. The bold line marks the Ghetto wall. Note house numbers on Muranowska Street.
The Ghetto Uprising started on 19 April. We could not see anything, but we heard lots of shooting and explosions. On 25 April, a group of determined Jews managed to escape from the Ghetto by breaking a hole in the wall. The hole was directly opposite our building. The Germans, assisted by the Ukrainian police, surrounded the block, and started to search the apartments methodically, looking for the escaped Jews.
All of us at the Groncki’s were greatly worried. In particular, my presence endangered us all. I had a typical Jewish face (Fig. 12). Furthermore, I was 13 years old – an unusual age to be visiting an elderly couple, who were not my relatives. And most important, being circumcised, I could be instantly identified as a Jew. I needed a good hiding place.
Fig. 12. My typical Jewish face made me an immediate suspect.
Mrs. Groncki brought up an idea. In the kitchen, under the windowsill, there was a small wall closet used for storing plates and cups, divided into two levels by a shelf. Mr. Groncki emptied the closet and fitted me on the lower level below the shelf. I was small and thin, barely able to fit in. Groncki filled the remaining space with plates, cups and old bottles. He then packed the corners and gaps with rags, so that I would not be seen, and closed the door.
Within minutes my breathing became difficult. I quickly used up most of the oxygen in the closet and felt I was suffocating. My folded position was extremely uncomfortable. I was pressed against the floor and against the wall. It was torture. The pain and suffocation increased steadily. How much longer would I be able to hold up?
Meanwhile the Gronckis became even more worried. What would happen if the Germans enter the apartment and decide to search it? Then, they would probably find me and, most likely, shoot everyone. Groncki decided to get rid of me, but he wanted to do so without exposing himself.
An idea crossed his mind. He told me to follow him. We went upstairs to the attic. The attic was almost empty, except for a few clotheslines. In the corner of the roof there was a hole. Groncki enlarged the hole by removing a few shingles. The building was 3-story tall. Adjacent to it was a 2-story house. I would have to slip out through the hole, get to the roof of the lower building and, from there, find the way to the staircase and to freedom.
There was only one problem, which I was unaware of. Contiguous houses form a block. When one house is surrounded, the entire block is surrounded. Therefore going to the adjacent house would not give me any advantage. But Mr. Groncki, conveniently, didn’t tell me that. He desperately wanted to get rid of me.
He took one of the clotheslines, looped it around my chest, helped me slip through the hole in the roof and lowered me to the roof of the adjacent building. Once I felt steady, I freed myself from the line. Then I squeezed myself through a hole in the roof into the attic, and ran down the stairs. I reached the first floor, when two Ukrainian policemen, blocked my way, their guns pointed at me.
I was born and raised in Lwów. I was well acquainted with the Ukrainian police, and recognized their uniforms immediately. I understand Ukrainian, and in 1943 I spoke it fluently. I asked them in their language to let me out, explaining that I was just visiting Warsaw and entered this house by mistake.
They were surprised to hear Ukrainian from a stranger in Warsaw. Somehow, it did not cross their minds that I might be a Jew. Our conversation was very polite, almost friendly. They lowered their guns. But they would not let me out. They were under strict orders not to let anybody out. I had to remain within the block and wait for the Germans to come.
Meanwhile, the Germans evacuated hundreds of people from the apartments, bringing them all to the corner of Muranowska and Przebieg Streets (see map, Fig. 11). They lined the people up, with their backs to the Ghetto wall. I saw the Gronckis, but, of course, did not speak to them. When all the block inhabitants stood with their backs to the wall, three SS officers came up in a jeep. They were race experts, able to identify Jews. The trio started walking along the line of people, carefully observing their faces. From time to time they dragged out suspicious looking individuals and, with utmost brutality, loaded them onto a truck. A more thorough investigation would be conducted later, in a different place.
Seeing the individuals that were picked, I realized that the experts knew their job well. That was very bad for me. In another few seconds I would probably be thrown onto the truck. My end had come. The trio approached me. I was covered with cold sweat, overwhelmed by fear. The three looked into my eyes and, incredibly, went on to the next person.
A miracle? How could they not recognize that I was a Jew? It was my exceptional luck that the experts were Germans, not Poles. Poles would certainly not commit such an error.
At the end, one of the SS officers stepped up on an elevation and, in broken Polish, said a few sentences about the "heinous crime” of helping Jews, the expected punishment for it, and the advantages of denouncing Jews in hiding. Everybody was now free to go.
I did not return to the Gronckis. I went quickly, still very much afraid, through Przebieg Street, as far away from the ghetto as possible.
That day’s events have shaken me deeply. It took some time to overcome the fear.
In later life my usual behavior was characterized by considerable worry of things that may go wrong, with possible disastrous consequences. It is not unreasonable to assume that the events just described and my experience during the Holocaust in general, contributed to this characteristic of my behavior.
* * *Ibrahim el-Awwal
Stella Seidenwerg, my mother’s sister who took over her sister’s duties, and so became my mother (Fig. 13), lived through both World Wars. Born in 1902, she was 12 years old when the World War I started. During that war her "shtetl” Husiatyn was burned to the ground. The family grasped whatever they could and
Fig. 13. Stella Seidenwerg, 1902-1992.
fled in panic. They reached the big city – Lwów, where years later I was born. Subsequently came the events of World War II and the Holocaust. Stella and her family escaped from the ghetto in Zbaraż; they hid in many places, were denounced, and barely escaped death, time after time. This accumulating experience contributed greatly to Stella’s strongest characteristic: her constant feeling that in a case of danger she must grab quickly whatever possible, and run away.
29 October 1956. War with Egypt – the Sinai War. That morning I passed my last medical school examination. Following that, there were some minor bureaucratic matters to attend to at the dean’s office. Then I was free to go on a two-week vacation, before starting my internship at the Hadassah Hospital. Because of the busy morning, I did not have time to listen to the news, and I did not realize that we were at war. I bought a bus ticket to Haifa, to Stella’s home.
When I came, Stella was alone. Her husband, uncle Gabriel passed away earlier that year, their elder son, Meir, was in the military service, and the younger, Adam, was not at home either. Only then did I find out about the war.
In the evening we went to sleep. A short time later the sound of explosions woke us up. The Egyptian destroyer Ibrahim el-Awwal paid a visit at the Haifa port with the obvious purpose to conquer the port and occupy Haifa.
We heard the explosions quite well. This was enough to bring Stella into a state of extreme fear and horror. She was in panic, and felt that we had to immediately escape to save our lives. Without turning the lights on, in the darkness, she managed to find an old suitcase, opened the bedroom closets, and grasped whatever fell in her hands, throwing it into the suitcase.
I tried to reassure and calm her, but she was beyond reasoning. Her life experience, the result of all the horrors accumulated during the Holocaust, kicked in. I argued with her and tried to convince her to return to bed and try to sleep, but she was unwilling to listen. In fact, she was quite angry that I did not help her pack the suitcase. Several hours went by before Stella calmed, even after the warship was taken over by the Israeli Navy and any sounds of war ceased.
This was Stella’s second nature – the result of horror accumulating during the years of the Holocaust.
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The child disappeared
In January 1942, the Lwów ghetto was not closed off yet, but no Jew was allowed to live outside it. With Jews not permitted to go to schools, there was not much for children to do. We spent most of our time meeting friends on the street or at their homes. The curfew hour was very strictly observed under the threat of death. Any Jew caught on the street after 8 p.m. would be arrested immediately and, quite likely, never seen again.
One evening, my younger brother Marian (Fig. 14) went missing. The curfew hour was approaching, and no one knew where he was. In 1942 such unexplained absence could mean either arrest or death. We all were terrified. My mother, in particular, was under
Fig. 14. My brother Marian.
severe stress, possessed by fear beyond description. There were no telephones in the ghetto. My mother became hysterical. She kept looking through the window, hoping to see Marian approaching, or walked restlessly between the only room we had and the kitchen, covering her face with hands, crying. This incredible tension lasted all through the night. No one even thought of going to sleep. During that night my mother’s black hair turned silver-white.
Marian came back in the morning. As it turned out, he was arrested by Ukrainian policemen, while walking on the street. The arrest was for no apparent reason, an event not unusual in those times. Marian had forgotten to put on his Star of David armband, and so, by pure luck, the policemen did not realize that he was a Jew. During his investigation at the police station he covered up his Jewish identity by using a fake Polish name, and was freed in the morning.
My mother’s hair remained white. During the seven months that she remained alive, she never dyed it. After the shock abated she used to joke about it, saying that she became platinum-blond overnight. She was killed in August of that year in the great extermination "Action” in the Lwów ghetto.
* * *Battle fatigue
In the summer of 1944 I was hiding with uncle Gabriel (Stella’s husband) and another Jewish couple at the home of a Polish family Bajer in the center of Warsaw. The Polish national uprising of Armia Krajowa – the Warsaw Uprising began on 1 August13. The Bajers were away in the country, and because of the uprising, could not return home. Our presence at the Bajer’s home was illegal and was kept a secret from the neighbors. We were left alone, without any outside information or help.
When street fighting started, all the people in the building went to the basement shelter. All the people, that is, except us. We stayed on the second floor, under heavy, uninterrupted bombing. Our building was hit several times and sustained severe damages. The roof was destroyed, and there were holes in the wall. Shrapnel and bullets penetrated the windowpanes, breaking them all and damaging the furniture and the walls.
For safety reasons we put the mattresses on the floor, close to the wall under the window, and slept there. Still, on two occasions I suffered near hits. Once, during a night of extensive bombarding, shrapnel hit my pillow, barely missing my head (Fig. 15). On another occasion a bullet pierced the wallet in the pocket of my pants, perforated all my documents and photographs and passed a mere millimeter from my thigh, but I was not injured (Fig. 16). I barely felt a hit on my buttock.
The uprising lasted full two months. During that time 170,000 inhabitants of Warsaw (20 percent of the population) were killed, most of them in the shelters.
Fig 15. The shrapnel that hit my pillow.
The four of us felt as in the battlefield, which in a sense it was. There was no place to hide and no possibility to escape. None of us was physically injured, but we all felt battle fatigue.
Fig. 16. Contents of my wallet pierced by the bullet.
*Another case of being in the battle occurred on 17 January 1945, the day of liberation of Częstochowa from the Nazis.
Late afternoon. I just finished some occupation in the center of town and was on the way to the Wieczorek home, where I lived. I was crossing the Virgin Mary Avenue (the main thoroughfare of Częstochowa), when the Soviet Army entered the Avenue, starting a street battle with the Germans. Within seconds Soviet tanks appeared and the street became a battlefield, with shots heard all over.
Many people were on the street, as none were expecting that they soon would be in the center of a battlefield. There was no place to escape to for protection, except to enter the gates of the buildings on both sides of the street. Everybody tried to do just that. I headed to the nearest gate, only to discover that it was locked, as most of the other gates.
Intuitively, a mass of people tried to squeeze together into the small niche of the gate, creating great pressure against the doors and against the people all around.
At a distance of about 25 meters (85 feet) I saw a Soviet tank being hit by a missile. It started burning. A Soviet soldier opened the top and emerged. He was instantly hit by a bullet and killed. People squeezed together more tightly. No civilian within my sight was hit. Gradually, the battle subsided or shifted elsewhere. The crowd waited a little longer, and eventually started dispersing. It was dark.
The Wieczorek family lived quite far. For safety reasons I preferred to go to the Placeks who lived nearby. With refugee guests at their home, all beds and sofas were occupied, but I was permitted to stay overnight on the floor in the kitchen. After having witnessed the battle, this was entirely satisfactory and, indeed, comfortable enough.
Częstochowa was liberated and I was free. The battle had appeared tough, but it seemed an appropriate conclusion of the Nazi terror.
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Surprise at the barber’s
One day, in the spring of 1943 I was sitting at the barber’s, having a haircut. Someone entered the shop and in a loud voice said "Good morning, Bronek.” I literally jumped in the chair, with the barber’s scissors in my hair. Luckily, my scalp was not harmed and the barber didn’t even notice.
At that time I was living in Warsaw under the assumed name of Józef Balicki. No one was supposed to know and be able to identify me by my real first name Bronisław, or by the informal nickname Bronek. Being recognized as Bronek, was enough to cause the sudden fear and the reflexive jump.
The man, it turned out, was greeting another Bronek. But I was deeply shaken. Obviously, going every month to a barber was not safe for me anymore. My uncle Lorenc’s reaction was immediate. He decided that from now on my haircuts would be done at home by whoever was available, not at any barber’s shop. I had to wait till the end of the war to have a satisfactory haircut.
* * *Illiteracy worries
Under the Nazi occupation Jews were barred from attending schools. For me this rule became significant in the summer of 1941, when the Germans occupied Lwów. Subsequently, for four consecutive years, from 1941 until 1945 I did not study in school. At first, this did not seem to be a harsh deprivation. Survival took precedence. Jews were forced into the ghetto, starved, imprisoned, and murdered. Eliminating education seemed trivial in comparison.
In December 1942 I escaped from the Lwów ghetto and reached Warsaw. I posed as a Polish-Christian, but attending school was out of question. For a period of a year-and-a-half I hid at the Bajer family apartment with three other people – my uncle Gabriel and a Jewish couple, also from Lwów. From May 1943 until the fall of 1944 we did not leave the apartment even once. Only tragic information about our families, and news of the war reached us from time to time.
During that long period of inaction I had a whole lot of time to think. In retrospect it may seem strange, but I wasn’t really worried about being disclosed, caught and killed. In my fantasies my survival seemed assured. I was, however, extremely worried by the thought that by the end of war I would be illiterate. Since my childhood I had wanted to be a physician. Would this still be possible? The years were passing by. Not only was I not studying, I was also forgetting what I had learned earlier.
There were a number of books at the Bajer apartment. These books did not really have much literary value, but they were, nevertheless, books that could be read. In addition, my aunt Stella visited us from time to time and brought some books for me. I read each book over and over, not only because of boredom, but also, in order not to forget how to read. I made a multiplication table and learned it by heart. Unfortunately, there was not much more that I could teach myself.
It was obvious to me that my years were being wasted, and worse: my studying routine was broken and I might never be able to correct it. My yearning for reading and studying grew stronger by the day and became my second nature.
After the war in Europe ended, I was accepted to the Children’s Home in Zatrzebie, on the outskirts of Warsaw. There were in Poland several such Homes for Jewish children, survivors of the Holocaust. I entered Zatrzebie on 13 July 1945, and immediately started studying "like crazy”.
A month and a half later I passed the qualifying examinations and was accepted to the second class of the high school (gymnasium) in Falenica. In that school I continued to study with unprecedented diligence and kept so during the following years.
Meanwhile Stella and Gabriel had become settled, and after two years in Zatrzebie I moved into their home. Within a short time, a funny routine became established. Every night Stella would quietly enter my room, to find out whether I was sleeping. More often than not, she would find me awake, reading and studying. She then urged me to go to sleep: "Enough studying, go to sleep, you already know more than necessary.” However I was still continuously worried that I would fall behind.
I graduated from the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School (Fig. 17), and became a thoracic surgeon. At the time of writing, after 50 years in the profession, I am 79 years old, and retired. But until this day, I go to the hospital once a week, and spend several hours in the library, reading medical journals. Is this normal? Am I still, at the age of 79, driven by my illiteracy fears?
Fig. 17. The graduation ceremony. The author first from right.
13 Not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that started on 19 April 1943.