Chapter 1: Escape from the
The whistle of the train woke
me up. We were approaching Lublin. I was on my way to Warsaw, escaping
the horrors of the Lwow ghetto, going to hide under an
assumed name among the "Aryans". My father decided on Warsaw, because
in Lwow I could be recognized on the street by my former
schoolmates, neighbors, and others. Blackmailers and Gestapo
informers were everywhere. In Warsaw, on the other hand, no one would
recognize me. Also, one assumed
that in Warsaw, a much larger city, it would be easier to
My mother's younger brothers,
Lorenc and Jozek, were already in Warsaw,
living under assumed Polish names as Aryan
Catholics. They sent a man, who, for a
large payment that included compensation for the high risk, would
accompany me on the trip, and deliver me safely
into their hands. My escape had been planned since the end of the
infamous "August Action" (Akcja Sierpniowa) in which 50,000
Jews (40% of Lwow's Jewish population) were taken from their
homes to the Belzec and Janowska death camps.
The Action started on August
10, 1942 and lasted two weeks. On the first day, my maternal
grandparents Frieda and Salem Klinger, my aunt Erna (Jozek’s
wife) and their one year old son Emil were taken to the gas chambers in
the Belzec extermination camp, 70 km away from Lwow. They never
returned. The Gestapo and the SS entered our home in the ghetto at 11
Wagowa Street. They wanted to take the children - my brother Marian and
me - with them. Terrible fear overtook my mother. She knew that they
were taking us to our deaths. She asked, first politely, then with
agitation, to leave us at home. When they rudely refused, she became
hysterical, and tried to block the door with her own body. A
shouting argument developed between her and the commanding officer.
Eventually she fell to her knees, grasped the officer by his boots and
begged him to leave her at least one of her children. While struggling
to free his legs, the officer turned around, gave a short order to his
subordinates, and they all left, leaving us behind.
This episode was
exceptional to an extreme degree, in striking contrast to the reality
of the Action. Was the officer impressed by my mother’s clean
and aesthetic appearance? By her pure and rich German? Or did she
awaken some humane feelings in him? We were saved by a miracle. To stay
at home would be suicidal. They would surely come again and
the miracle would not be repeated. We had to leave, to go somewhere,
anywhere, as long as it was out of the ghetto.
Later on during the day, when
the Action abated and the Nazis left the ghetto, we went to hide in
“Textilia”, the textile factory where my father
Textilia was located at 23
Legionow Street. In it, raw materials were extracted from old
uniforms stripped off Soviet casualties and prisoners, and were
converted into cloth for uniforms for the German armed
forces. Only Jews worked there, all as slaves,
without any compensation.
However, the work provided the slaves
with an employment certificate - a key for
survival. We spent several days in the Textilia storeroom, squeezed
between bales of cloth. There was hardly any food, but enough
water and tea. My mother was very sad and cried most of the time,
thinking of her parents who had just been taken to their deaths. Both
were in their sixties. My mother was 41. She sang a sad German song,
"Ich hatt' einen Kameraden". I still remember that song.
As the days passed, the Action
in the ghetto seemed to draw to an end, and my parents decided that it
was time to return home. We did, but not for long. August 17th was one
of the worst days of the Action. The Nazis came in large
numbers, assisted by the Ukrainian police.
Thousands of Jews were taken from their homes and sent to the Belzec
and Janowska camps. My mother, brother and I were
caught. The Nazis were very brutal, quick and efficient. They
would not listen to arguments or explanations. Pushing, using sticks
and the butts of their rifles, they threw us out of our home,
downstairs to the backyard, and further on to the street.
From there, the Ukrainian police led us to a nearby house at 11
Goluchowski Square, and shoved us into a large courtyard. The courtyard
had a single gate. There was no other exit. Some 200 people were
squeezed into this yard. The Ukrainian policemen and the SS guarded the
It was a very hot
day. We were sweating and very thirsty. No one would give us
water or anything else to drink, or any food. More and more
people were forced into the yard, fear and desperation on
their faces. Stench in the air.
Mother repeatedly told me and
Marian to stay close to the gate at all times, and to watch for an
opportunity to escape. She would try to escape later. At that
moment any chance of running away seemed impossible. The police force
was large in number, and they all seemed to keep their eyes on us. We
told our mother that we would not run away. We felt
safer with her and wanted to stay with her. But she saw
escape as our only chance to survive, and was very firm and insistent
about it. We were both small and very thin, and could perhaps squeeze
by, unnoticed, between people entering the yard (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: The
courtyard at 11 Goluchowski Square. Here Jews were gathered before
being shipped off to Belzec. The only gate was heavily
“Now is an
opportunity", mother said suddenly and pointed to the direction out,
"Go away! I will come after you". In an instant, perhaps
a second or less, we found ourselves
between the boots of the Nazis and the legs of the Jews being
shoved in, and then, suddenly, on the street, among people moving
freely. Walking quickly, but not running, in order not to attract
attention, we went in the direction of Textilia, to our father.
My father already
knew that his family had been taken away, but there was nothing he
could have done to help us. A quick conversation with other
Textilia workers, and we were again hidden between the bales of cloth,
as during the previous week. Mother, of course, did not follow us. She
Another victim of that day's
Action was my paternal grandmother Feiga. She lived with her daughter
and son-in-law, Lola and Bruno Gersten (Fig. 2). They were protected by
employment certificates. She was not.
In addition, she was ill and bedridden. When an SS man
ordered her out of bed and out of the apartment, she could
not comply. A shot in the head from his handgun cut her life
short. We heard this from Lola a few hours later. There were no
funerals. Jews who died or were killed in the ghetto were dumped into
common graves. My father never found out where his mother was
Fig 2: My paternal
grandmother Feiga Weissberg (second from left). To her left
are my father, father's aunt Liza Rappaport, unknown woman,
my mother, father's sister Lola, unknown woman, Mina
Weissberg. Sitting in the front row: my father's
brother Izak flanked by Tosia and Ziuta - Liza's daughters
We stayed in Textilia for
another week, and when the Action ended, returned to the ghetto. It was
hardly recognizable. The population had shrunk by 40 percent, and so
had the size of the ghetto itself. When we returned, Wagowa
Street was no longer within the ghetto limits. We found
ourselves in a two-room apartment with four other families,
about 20 people altogether. Besides my father, brother and myself,
there were my father's sister Lola (Fig. 2), her husband Bruno, Bruno's
brother Mundek (a bachelor), their cousin Bruno
Bindel and his wife (their child was in hiding
outside the ghetto), Mr. and Mrs. Kleiner
(he worked before the war as an administrator in
one of my parents’ apartment houses, on 11 Chocimska Street),
and several other people. There was no running
water. A wooden outhouse in the backyard served as a toilet. Water was
available in a nearby well, and we washed in a
small basin. During the morning hours, when everybody was in
a hurry, most of us would just not wash. This was a striking
difference to our previous living quarters: in the
apartment on Wagowa St. we alone had occupied a
room-and-kitchen apartment, and everybody had had a bed of his own. In
the new place, a two-room apartment, there was no room for 20 beds. My
father, brother and I slept in one bed; the others likewise.
Food was much scarcer than before and for the first time we felt hunger.
Almost everybody worked,
because the Action eliminated nearly all of the unemployed;
my brother and I were
notable exceptions. There was mortal danger in being
unemployed. It was obvious that in another Action, we would
be among the first to go. Within several days, my father had obtained a
job in Textilia for me. Getting a job for a boy of 13, small and thin,
took a lot of diplomacy and a large bribe, but
eventually I became a laborer in Textilia, and would go to work with my
father every day. This provided me with an employment certificate,
which seemed to give some protection for the immediate future and a
sense of security.
My brother Marian was 10 years
old. To obtain a job with an employment certificate for him
was plainly impossible. One had to look
for a more realistic measure to save him. This was found
through the excellent
relationship we had with our former maid
Zofia ("Zosia") Jarosz.
Zosia was a Polish Catholic
woman in her thirties. She had worked for my parents for several years,
during which time she had lived at our home, and was like a member of
our family. Her family were all peasants and lived in the country.
After talking to her parents, Zosia took Marian to their home
in the village of Pruchnik, County Jaroslaw, some 100 km away from
Lwow. Marian would stay with the Jarosz family until the end of the
war, and would help them
in their work. Our father would
pay them by transferring funds through contacts in
Lwow. Immediately after making this
arrangement, father started looking for a similar
arrangement for me.
It reflects strangely on human
nature, but many people refused to believe that all
those taken away were killed soon afterwards. There were
rumors about labor camps where the Jews were imprisoned,
raising hopes that at the end of the war they would return.
Illogical though such rumors were, that was what people wanted to
believe. The truth was too horrible to comprehend.
During the last days of the August Action both of my mother's brothers,
Lorenc and Jozek (Figs. 3 and 4) were imprisoned in the
Janowska concentration camp.
The camp was located
on the north-western outskirts of Lwow, at the end
of Janowska Street, from which it took its name. The camp was notorious
for its high execution rate 1. My uncles were well
aware of this, and from the
moment of their imprisonment started
planning escape. Both were
in their thirties, full of energy and initiative, and very
bright. Also, they had
connections with people who
could provide forged documents proving their changed
Fig. 3: Lorenc Klinger, 1904-1944
Fig. 4: Dr. Jozef Klinger, 1906 - 1944
Escaping from a concentration
camp was never easy. However, Janowska inmates used to work
outside the camp, mostly as garbage
collectors in the city. While on job assignments,
there were opportunities to enter some
building, allegedly to collect garbage, remove the jacket
with the brown vertical stripe on its back intended
for easy identification of all inmates, and then to leave the building
through a different exit, as a different person.
I never found out whether
Lorenc and Jozek took advantage of a city-cleaning assignment, or
perhaps managed to penetrate the barbed wire surrounding the camp at
some weak spot, but several weeks after their imprisonment (end of
September or early October, 1942) we received news that they were in
Warsaw, living under assumed names as Polish Catholics.
Lorenc Klinger became Stanislaw Nowak, Jozef Klinger became Jozef
Przyzycki. Jozek (diminutive of Jozef) was alone since his wife and son
had been taken to the Belzec gas chambers two months earlier. Lorenc
had his wife with him. They were willing
to bring the rest of the family to Warsaw, as
soon as they settled down and made the
necessary connections. This might take a couple of months. In the
meantime, forged identity documents with Polish names had to be
obtained. Through appropriate contacts and at great expense,
my father acquired a set of papers for me identifying me as Jozef
Balicki (Figs. 5,6,7,8).
Fig. 5: Birth and
Baptism Certificate issued in the name of Jozef Balicki, born in
Brody on November 20, 1929, son of Michael and Maria nee Raczynska
Fig. 6: School Certificate of the Stanislaw Sobinski Elementary School in Zborow for the year 1938-39
Fig. 7: School Identification Card, 1938-39
Fig. 8: School Identification Card of the Polnische Volksschule fur Knaben, issued in Lemberg (Lwow) in 1942
As well as us in Lwow, there
was a branch of our family that lived in Zbaraz, a little town east of
Tarnopol: my mother's sister Stella, her husband Gabriel
Seidenwerg, and their two sons, Marek, 9, and Adam, 4 (Fig. 9). They
also had to be taken care of and brought to Warsaw.
In November 1942 there was
another brutal Action, but being employed in Textilia saved
both my father and me. Soon after this Action, the ghetto was
drastically reduced in size and closed off. A tall fence was erected
around it with just one gate, under the railroad bridge on Sloneczna
Street. People were put in military camp-like living
quarters, referred to as "barracks" (koszary, Kaserne). Men lived
separately from women. Families were not permitted to stay
together. My father and I were assigned
one bed in a small room shared with six
other men. Every morning, under heavy escort, we were marched in a
military fashion, four in a row, from the ghetto, each
group to its place of work. In the late afternoon,
there was the same military style march back to the "barracks" in the
ghetto, where we slept. Communication with
Lorenc, as with anybody from outside, became much
Fig. 9: Stella with her children in 1938
Every week or two, a contact man would appear unexpectedly from Warsaw,
enter Textilia and talk with my father for a few minutes. It was clear
to everybody that time was running out and
extermination neared. There were no
more illusions that those taken last August were living
somewhere, in some labor or concentration camp. Panic became
December 1942. Rumors of more Actions to come. Sending me out became my
father's first, most urgent priority. The expense
of living in Warsaw was expected to be very high. One had to take into
account the cost of food, lodging, compensation for the risk to the
people who would give me shelter, ransoms for potential
blackmailers, and many unexpected expenses - all this for an unknown
length of time - the war could last several more years. No one expected
that I could earn money in Warsaw, so all the funds had to be
provided in advance. Obviously, my uncles would share with me whatever
they had, but they too were in hiding, and had only expenses,
no income. For coverage of this huge
expense my father gave me a large diamond, to be
handed to Lorenc immediately upon my
arrival in Warsaw. The diamond was sewn carefully
into a seam in the crotch of my pants.
The day of escape was set for
Tuesday, December 22. That morning I took from the ghetto a small
parcel with two shirts, some socks, and in addition what few
belongings I could put in my pockets: a
toothbrush, a comb, a pocketknife, a Mont Blanc fountain pen
(my grandfather's Bar-Mitzva gift), and a few family photos.
The photos were carefully chosen so that the faces
in them did not betray semitic origin.
The weather was pleasant. I
marched to Textilia and did my usual day’s work.
Before the group prepared for the return march to the ghetto, I had a
parting conversation with my father. He instructed me on how to behave
and gave me my new set of documents.
My father was a very reserved
person, always very controlled, never showing his emotions. But this
time he was quite emotional, and cried when he kissed me
goodbye. It must have been obvious to him that we were parting forever.
I was the last and only member of his family still with him.
From now on he would be alone. That very night he would sleep alone. He
realized that his chances of survival
were nil; mine, not much
greater. My thoughts were different. I was probably
too young and immature to grasp fully the seriousness of the situation.
To me it seemed that I was going to safety in Warsaw. Father,
and Stella with her family in Zbaraz, would follow soon. The nightmare
of the ghetto was about to end.
The last few moments arrived.
People were leaving the factory, gathering in the yard to
march off. My father was the last one to leave the building.
The gate of the factory was
locked, while I stayed behind.
Through the window I watched the group marching off. My last
view of my father: his back. He did not look back.
The time was 5 o'clock. I
waited one hour. Kazik, the contact man, was due to arrive at
6. A few minutes before 6, I opened the narrow window on the ground
floor and squeezed out into the yard (Fig. 10). It was
dark. I waited, and then saw Kazik entering the
yard. He wore a brown sporty hat with a
feather, Austrian style. It gave him the appearance of a
German and a false sense of security. Without exchanging a
word, I followed him through the streets,
walking about 10 meters behind
him, like two strangers. We walked for
about 20 minutes in the direction of the central railway station. Not
far from the station he led me into
a narrow side street. He knocked on the door of a ground
floor apartment and we entered. A small Christmas tree was on
the table, decorated, ready for the holiday. As well as the
couple who lived there and who
offered us tea, there was a boy, about my
age, with a semitic face, talkative and with a Jewish sense
of humor. Another one like me, I thought. Probably
Kazik had brought him here.
Fig. 10: The narrow window through which I escaped is on my left. Photograph taken 50 years later
Kazik asked to see my
identification card. He took it and rubbed it against the
table top to make it appear older and well used. This made me quite
upset, because I liked its brand-new appearance. But Kazik
knew better. After about an hour we left the
apartment and, again as
strangers, went to the railway station
and boarded the train. We sat in the same
compartment, ignoring each other. It was an all-night,
uneventful trip. Our tickets were checked a few times, but
nothing else happened. In the morning we were in Warsaw.
There was a long ride in a
streetcar, from which I remember one detail: when the tram passed by
the wall of the ghetto, I noticed a sign in Polish
and in German: "Typhus
endangered area. Passage permitted in vehicles
only." ("Obszar zagrozony tyfusem plamistym. Dozwolony tylko
przejazd."). Ridiculous. Obviously, there was no danger
of catching typhus by walking close to the ghetto
wall, but the Nazis wanted to prevent any
contact between the Jews inside and the
“Aryans” outside. Anyone who disobeyed the sign
would be shot or arrested for investigation by the Gestapo.
Lorenc met us on the street
and Kazik departed. A brief walk to Lorenc's home
at 24 Aleje Ujazdowskie, where
he and his wife rented one room in a first floor apartment.
His landlords (Schmied family) were of
part German origin (Volksdeutsche), and thought
that he was part German too.
There was no "permanent"
arrangement for me as yet and Lorenc did not want
me to stay in that German home. I would be safer
spending the first few days with Jozek. He lived with an
elderly couple, to whom I was introduced
as a child of old friends, visiting relatives
in Warsaw for the holidays. I would spend the
nights with Jozek, and the days with the non-existent
relatives. So during the following two days Jozek
and I had to spend as much time as possible out of doors.
December 24. Spending
Christmas Eve "with relatives" meant walking through the
streets of Warsaw. It was overcast and
quite warm. Slight drizzle. The
snow covering the sidewalks melted to slush. We
walked a great deal and Jozek showed me some places of
interest. I remember best
the 12-story "skyscraper" - Poland's
tallest building at that time -
and St. Alexander's Church
("Church of Three Crosses") at the square
bearing the same name. We must have seen much more,
but I was tired to the point of exhaustion. Besides, so many things had
happened during the past three days that I could not remember many
details. But I did get a real feeling of Warsaw.
Because of the curfew we had to be at home by 8 o'clock. A
rather short Christmas Eve.
1 Leon Weliczker Wells: The Death Brigade (The Janowska Road). Holocaust Library, New York, 1978.