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 academic degrees.
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 Uprising.
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
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
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 language.

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
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 Committee.
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 Hatzair”.
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).