Chapter 8: Rehabilitation
I entered Zatrzebie in July, 1945. The campus was located in the
south-eastern suburb of Warsaw, in
a beautiful green area surrounded by woods. It consisted of
several wooden houses, each one spacious enough to accomodate 20 to 30
children. Before the war it had served as a resort camp for children.
When I arrived, there were about a hundred children there from less
than three years of age to upper teens, divided into groups by age. The
number of children increased steadily, approaching 200 in the summer of
1946. I was assigned to the “grown-up” group, from 13 years
up. Each group had an instructor and occupied one of the houses, girls
and boys separately. We slept two, three or four in a room,
depending on the room’s size.
Zatrzebie, like other children's homes, was under the control of the
Central Committee of Jews in Poland (Centralny Komitet Zydow w
Polsce), supervised by the government. The
American Jewish Joint Committee helped financially. We
received used clothing donated by American Jews, and
American Army uniforms from demobilized units. Food
was good and sufficient.
The children came from various places. Some, like me, emerged from
their hiding places among Polish Christians; a few were brought
to the Jewish Committee by Poles who had protected them during the
German occupation, their true identities sometimes unknown; some came
from concentration and extermination camps; and as of 1946, some
came from families returning from the Soviet Union.
All, except the very youngest who could not remember,
told stories about their persecution and
suffering, and the many tricks, inventions and
near-miracles that had helped them to escape death. Some children had
parents, rarely both, but the parents were unable to support them.
There was a lot of activity aimed at psychological and educational
rehabilitation. Most of us had not attended school for several years.
The younger ones had never even been to school. By intensive
study during the whole summer, we tried to compensate for the
lost years and to be ready to enter the
highest possible class that each one
could fit into. A kind of friendly competition developed,
in which mutual help was taken for granted. We studied in small groups,
according to the level of our personal
knowledge, sometimes changing a group,
depending on educational needs. The youngest children had their
kindergarten teachers, and were cared for according to their age.
Our instructors also came from various hiding places and concentration
camps. They all came with the purpose and ambition to
help us overcome our psychological burdens, and to minimize
the damage done by years of being out of
school and out of normal life. Many of the
instructors were high quality professional teachers, some with
Professor Zelmanowski who taught us biology had a Ph.D. degree. During
our free evenings he played on the piano, while we learned how to
dance. Miss Wanda taught Polish literature. The instructor of my
group was Mrs. Irena Brill. She taught mathematics. She was from
Lwow and had a very ill little daughter. After several
months Mrs. Brill took her daughter for treatment to Switzerland,
and in her place, as our instructor, came Mr. Szymon
Labendz. He used to be a gym teacher, and made great
efforts to encourage physical education.
Mrs. Dvora Haberberg was an instructor of a younger group of
children. Her son Ben was in her group. The principal of
the Children's Home was Mrs. Margulies. She left Poland after several
months. In her place came Mrs. Weiss, an
educator and a recently discharged Polish Army officer. I do not
remember others by name.
Much time was devoted to sports, playing games, and cultural
activities. Piano lessons were available.
Artists, mostly musicians and singers, came from Warsaw and
performed for us, and sometimes we went to Warsaw for similar cultural
events. I saw my first opera on such a visit. It was Madame Butterfly.
No time was wasted.
Psychological burdens were common, and difficult to shed. For many
children, saving food for times of starvation was second nature.
During meals they would take an extra few slices of bread, and while
unobserved, put it in their beds under the mattress: a
kind of safety deposit for times of
need. It reminded me of the “gifts of
God” of Mrs. Bajer which we had eaten during the Warsaw
Bruno Maliniak from the Shelter for the Blind (February, 1943) was
already in the grown-up group when I joined it. He had grown
considerably and matured during those 2
years spent in the concentration camps. Initially we did
not recognize each other. His identity occurred to me only after I
heard his full name. He told me about the fate of
others who had hidden with us. We became close
friends, went to the same class when the
school-year started, and often studied together. In 1946 he left Poland
to join his relatives in Tel Aviv, and in 1948
participated in Israel's War of Independence. Later he went to
the Naval School in Haifa, and became captain of an Israeli
commercial ship. He married and had three children. In 1974
Bruno committed suicide. I wonder how much his traumatic
childhood experiences contributed to his taking his own life (Fig. 35).
Fig. 35: Bruno Maliniak whom I first met in the Shelter for the Blind in Warsaw, and again, in Zatrzebie
In September, 1945 we started school. I was assigned to the second
class in the high school in Falenica, a 25-minute walk from Zatrzebie.
The only Jews in the school were from our Children's Home. In my
class we were a sizeable group of eight, including two
girls - the largest Zatrzebie group in any class. Our reception was
mixed: some classmates were friendly, came to visit us in
Zatrzebie and invited us to their homes; others were indifferent
or openly hostile. Antisemitic remarks were common.
Our school teachers were mostly friendly and understanding, all very
much impressed by our serious approach and quick progress in studies.
In a large measure this was due to our all-summer intensive study in
Zatrzebie. In addition, when the school-year began, we did not
relax, but increased our efforts. As a group, we were more
diligent, learned more quickly than others in our class, and
consistently achieved higher marks. Miss Petrykiewicz, our class tutor,
taught Latin. She was from Lwow, as I was, which made me
her favorite pupil. She did not attempt to hide her special
affection for me, which became a subject of jokes.
In the 1940s religion was still taught in schools in Poland, although
it was not obligatory. We Jews did not participate, but were permitted
to stay in the class during the lessons. The religion teacher, a
priest whose name I do not remember, did not ignore us, but
talked to us in a derogatory manner. During his first
lesson he started asking questions. One of
the first students to be asked, a boy from Zatrzebie, stood up
and said “I do not know the answer, I am a
Jew.”. The priest reacted with a derogatory sneer and said:
“A Jewboy?! How many of you are here? Why won't you stand up,
Jewboys; let me count.”. The eight of us stood up, and he
continued: “Well, I see two Jewgirls!”. Then he
permmitted us to sit down. During the break, one of
our group approached him and said in a categorical tone: “I
would like to bring to Father's attention, that my name is Ryszard
Pines, not Jewboy.”. After that first meeting, we did
not stay in the class during the religion lessons.
The teacher of languages was Mrs. Janina Kowalik, a remarkable and
beautiful woman. Besides being an excellent teacher,
she approached our group with great warmth, and invited us in
small groups to her home for free private lessons,
until we reached and exceeded others in the class. She did it
with the Zatrzebie children in all classes in our school. On several
occasions we argued among ourselves about the possibility that Mrs.
Kowalik was Jewish, but I discarded this idea as an absurdity.
Some time in the fall, a group of musicians and singers came to
Zatrzebie for a concert, one of our earliest. We
invited Mrs. Kowalik. The concert took place in the dining room, with
benches arranged in rows. By her own choice, Mrs. Kowalik sat in the
far back of the room, between Marek Sznajderman and Amek
Birenbaum. Because it was close to the Jewish holidays, the
program included Kol Nidrei, a Yom Kippur prayer. When this
was played, I looked back, and was shocked to see Mrs. Kowalik
crying. Now her Jewishness was beyond doubt. Later
she told us that in her childhood she had lived in Palestine and
attended school in Tel Aviv, but her parents had decided to
return to Poland (Fig. 36).
Fig. 36: Mrs. Kowalik with Marek Sznajderman (on her left) and Wladek Bergman
Mrs. Kowalik became our close friend and frequent visitor, and
she continued to teach English all
those of us who were interested, at her home.
However, I chose German as the foreign language in school,
because it was easier for me. I knew German, and my studies
were difficult enough without the burden of an additional
Early in 1946 we started celebrating birthdays. It began with close
friends giving little gifts to the birthday boy or girl.
Later, our instructors joined in, and the birthday celebrations became
routine. Sometimes two or three birthdays were combined,
and celebrated together, with candles,
cake and lemonade supplied by the management.
One day, Bronia Rudman, a girl from the youngest group, asked:
“When is my birthday going to be?”. At that, everybody
became embarassed. Bronia was about three years old. She had apparently
been born in a concentration camp. Her parents were dead, her name
was uncertain, her birthday unknown.
Indeed, when would Bronia's birthday be celebrated? It was
early November, and my birthday was very close. Because of
the similarity of our first names (my name was Bronek, a diminutive of
Bronislaw), one of the instructors decided that from now on, Bronia's
birthday would be the same as mine, November 17. This was recorded as
her official birthday (until then she
had none), and we both celebrated it together with
Amek (Sol) Birenbaum who was born on November 16.
Amek was our Senior - the oldest in our group. His mother
survived the war in a concentration camp
and worked in the Children's Home office. His
father had been drafted into the Soviet Army in 1941, his
whereabouts unknown for a long time, but he survived
the war, returned to Poland, and found his family in
Zatrzebie. Amek left Poland with his parents shortly after
our celebration, had a little brother born in Sweden, and eventually
ended up in the United States, as a
successful engineer and businessman in the field of electronics.
The reunion of the Birenbaums was an exceptionally lucky occurrence.
Sometimes the opposite happened. The youngest boy among our older
group was Henio Frenkel, 13. Of his entire family, only
he and his mother survived the Holocaust. She visited him
frequently and I remember her well. One day she went to a remote
village, apparently to recover some property, which she had left for
safe-keeping during the war. She never came back. She
was apparently murdered either by the "safe-keeper", or by others
who recognized a lonely and helpless Jewish woman. Henio remained
alone with his pain. He lives in Israel in a Kibbutz, is married and
has four grown-up children.
One could reasonably expect that the extermination of three million
Polish Jews (over 90% of the pre-war population) would
finally bring an end to antisemitism in Poland. But
antisemitism never dies. Much of it persisted and continued to
linger on for a long time. On July 4, 1946, anti-Jewish
riots took place in the town of Kielce. The rioters went on a
rampage, beating and killing Jews, while
the police stood by, looking on
with satisfaction, and did nothing to interfere. 43 Jews were murdered
on that day, and many more were wounded.
This put us on alert. Our feeling of security disappeared, and
the importance of self-defense settled in
our minds. In Zatrzebie all the older boys
underwent a crash course in using rifles, and every
night, two of us at a time, armed with rifles,
patrolled the campus, changing with two others in the
middle of the night (Fig. 37). Fortunately, we never had to use
the rifles, but our feeling of being "at home" was badly shaken. Many
started planning and preparing to leave Poland and to settle in
Palestine. Unfortunately, except for those who
had close relatives there, this could be done
only illegally, and with great difficulty. The
Mandatory British Government prevented immigration of Jews; those
who arrived without British certificates were either
returned to Europe, or arrested and diverted to
internment camps in Cyprus. With great effort
Mietek Markowicz managed to get to Palestine in 1946,
but was killed in battle in Israel's War of
Independence in 1948. In 1946 I was not yet convinced
that I should leave Poland, and Jozia Zauberman,
my close friend and confidant, did not spare efforts
to indoctrinate me with the ideology of Zionism. Today she
lives and prospers as Mrs. Jessie Fiksel in Canada, but her
efforts may have played a role when my ideas were forming.
Fig. 37: Crash course in the use of rifles
Because of difficulties in getting to Palestine, the majority of us
remained, at least temporarily, in Zatrzebie, where
education and cultural life continued to
flourish. We edited our own weekly newspaper,
with Marek Sznajderman as chief editor, and Ida
Kelberg, Marysia Wecer and myself, as the editorial board.
Similar newspapers were published in other children's homes, and
in January, 1947, a convention of editors
took place in Zatrzebie, all organized by our Editorial
Board, with much help received from our instructor, Mr. Labendz.
The organization and preparations consumed a good deal of our time, but
it was my first experience of organizing a convention, and I learned
much. The convention lasted a whole week. The artistic and
entertainment program included stage shows (all of our own
production, directed by Mr. Labendz), lectures, songs and poems
prepared by us especially for the
occasion, and a chess competition. Scores
of “editors” arrived from other children's homes in
Poland, as well as many top officials from the Central Jewish
One memorable event was our stage production of Moliere’s
“The Miser”, in which I played the title role. The show
took place on January 6, the last day of our convention. While on the
stage, I felt an acute pain in my abdomen, which within minutes became
quite severe. Overcoming the pain, I played to the end, and returned
to the stage for the ovation. Eventually appendicitis was
diagnosed. Stella thought that only the best surgeons in Warsaw
were sufficiently qualified to perform appendectomy on her
nephew, but over her great protestations, I was operated on in
nearby Otwock, by Dr. Olpinski. He did a great job.
As a rehabilitation center for children deprived of normally
functioning families and homes, our children's home
would get top marks by any standards. But Zatrzebie was more than that:
here every child had experience in suffering comparable to my
own, and often much worse. For us, Zatrzebie was not just the end
of the fear of death, starvation and homelessness; it was nothing
less than Paradise. Many fell in love, and life-long friendships
developed during those two years. For many, including myself,
the Zatrzebie friends became close family. Over the
decades that followed, our relationships were never disrupted,
even by separation of thousands of kilometers and of years
without physical contact. When I meet someone from
Zatrzebie after many years, it is like meeting a brother or a
sister after a long separation.
The success of our rehabilitation in Zatrzebie should be judged
not only by the pleasant memories, and
the long-lasting friendships, but also by the achievements of its
alumni. I do not have information on everybody,
but I have maintained contact with nearly all
my close friends from those days,
and have information on many others. Each one is a
success story. Some I have already mentioned. A few other
examples: Marek Sznajderman, the intellectual and gentleman of our
group, remained in Poland and became a prominent cardiologist,
Professor at the University of Warsaw. Ida Kelberg
(now Buszmicz) studied chemistry, and later taught
chemistry in a high school. She lives in Israel, has three
grown-up children and four grandchildren. Marysia
Wecer (presently Thau), my first teenage love (hopeless), became a
journalist and lives in Israel. Her younger son, Kati, a
student at the Israel Institute of Technology
(Technion), was killed by terrorists in 1974, during his military
service at the Lebanese border. Jozef Siegman ("Manelarz") became an
engineer. He has three children and lives in Israel. Jozef Sztarkier, a
chemical engineer, lives in Sweden. Michael Falk, has a Ph.D. degree in
chemistry, is a research scientist, and works for the Canadian
Government. Ela Wajsfater (Galili) is a lawyer in Tel Aviv. And there
are many more. I am not aware of any failures; I know of no one
who did not achieve something significant, either in science,
professional life or in business.
How did it happen that a shelter for homeless children produced this
kind of graduate? Children's homes and orphanages around the
world are often known as breeding places for criminals and
social parasites, with a minority becoming
barely acceptable members of society, but rarely
intellectuals, professionals and leaders. Exceptions
are known, but usually as individuals, not entire
institutions. To a large extent it must have been the
motivation of our instructors and
teachers. They were high-quality, highly
motivated professional educators, and
apparently knew what they were doing. The
good planning, organization and thought given to
the project by the Central Jewish Committee
undoubtedly also played a major role. There were probably
other factors as well, but it would take a
major psycho-sociological study to find out.
By 1947 Stella and her family had settled in Walbrzych, an
unattractive, medium-sized town in a coal-mining region of Lower
Silesia. Gabriel opened a retail textile store.
Adam had recovered from his illness and went to school. Both he
and Marek joined a Zionist youth organization, “Hashomer
For a long time Stella had made incessant efforts to convince me that I
should leave the children's home and join the family. Because of
emotional attachment to my friends in Zatrzebie, I resisted her
efforts, but eventually, in the summer of 1947, I complied, and moved
to their home - our home in Walbrzych. For the 1947-48 school year I
was enrolled in the first class of the “B. Limanowski”
Lyceum (a two-year junior college).