By Lonia Kirshenbaum Mosak
As told to Lester Jacobson
This book is dedicated to my family, who have made this long journey worthwhile, so they should know what it was like.
It’s impossible to explain, and impossible to describe, what happened there. There’s not enough ink and paper in this world to describe it. It was hell on earth.”
My name is Lonia Kirshenbaum Mosak. I was born in 1922 in the small eastern Polish town of Nowy Dwor. A year later, my family moved to Ciechanow, a medieval Polish city 65 kilometers north.
“It’s impossible to explain, and impossible to describe, what happened there. There’s not enough ink and paper in this world to describe it. It was hell on earth.”
Growing up my days were filled with family and friends. I attended Jewish school and participated in Zionist activities. Life was good, except for one thing: we lived in a deeply anti-Semitic society. By the late 1930s, with Germany threatening war and anti-Jewish sentiment in Poland running high, my parents sent my oldest brother Harry to Russia, hoping that he could escape the coming hostilities. We thought the Germans wouldn’t harm children or older people. In September 1939 the Germans invaded Poland and war broke out. I was 17 years old.
My parents, younger brother and I were forced out of our homes, without money or possessions, allowed to take only the things we could carry. We lived with several other Jewish families crammed into one room. I got typhus and barely survived.
A few weeks after I recovered, we were deported along with many of the city’s other Jews to a small ghetto a few kilometers away. When we arrived we were given 15 minutes to find a place to stay. The apartments were already filled, so, with no other choice, we ran into a stable, and there we lived, crowded with horses and half a dozen other families, for a year.
Then, in the middle of the night, the Germans rounded up the ghetto’s Jews and herded us onto a train. Jammed in cattle cars without room to squat, we rode for days until we reached our final destination, Auschwitz. This was the Nazi’s largest and most efficient death camp, a place where a million people were gassed, shot, burned and beaten to death in just four years. My parents and younger brother were taken from the train and I never saw them again. My number, tattooed on my left arm, was 25702.
I was there from 1942 to 1945. Every day I witnessed beatings and killings. My barracks was just a few dozen meters from a crematorium. I could see the smoke day and night. Death was ever-present. You never knew if you would live another hour.
Near the end of the war, with the Allies closing in, the Nazis force-marched thousands of us remaining prisoners, so ill and starving we could barely walk, into Germany. Even after being liberated by Russian soldiers, we faced grave dangers. Jews in Europe were still being murdered for the crime of being Jewish. Anti-Semitism in Poland remained so strong that I changed my name. I was arrested as a spy by the Communists.
Finally, two years later, having made my way to Austria, I fled across the Bavarian Alps to freedom.
That I survived typhus, the ghetto, the years in Auschwitz, the death march that followed, the terrible pogroms in Poland after the war and the escape from Communist Austria across the Alps, were all miracles.
And miracle of miracles, I managed to make my way to America and with my husband, another Auschwitz survivor, start a new life, raise a family, and run a successful business. Of the millions sent to Auschwitz, I was one of the few who survived.
This is my story.
Chapter 1: Pre-war Life
[Italicized comments in brackets are editor’s notes. – LJ]
I was born Leah Kirshenbaum on July 20, 1922, in the small eastern Polish town of Nowy Dwor, about 40 kilometers northwest of Warsaw.
A year later, seeking a better life, our family moved to a larger city, Ciechanow, 65 kilometers further north. Ciechanow (pronounced Che-HAHN-ov) is a beautiful medieval city. Jews had lived there since the 16th century. [According to The Nizkor Project, a web site devoted to Holocaust research, there were 6,000 Jews living there before the war, which was about one-third of the city’s population.] There were more opportunities for my family, and we had relatives there.
My father, Mendel, came from a large family: he had seven brothers and a sister. He made his living making signs and cemetery monuments. He had a shop in the back of our apartment. His father did the same thing; it was a family trade.
My mother, Esther, was a homemaker. I didn’t know my grandparents. They died before I was born.
I had three younger brothers, Hershel (Harry), Shmuel and Shia. Shmuel died from typhus as a boy, before the war. It was a fairly common disease, unfortunately. But common or not, it was devastating to my family. After he died I remember being sent with money to pay the doctor. I started to cry, and asked the doctor why he couldn’t save my brother. He said, “It is God’s will.”
My family was very observant. We kept the Shabbos; we didn’t even turn on the lights on the Sabbath. My father went to the shul three times a day. There were two synagogues in Ciechanow, and every Jewish family belonged to one or the other.
The older generation were very religious, and we followed their rules, but more out of respect than conviction. My friends and I were secular Jews. It was my dream to emigrate to Palestine.
Like most other Jewish families, we spoke Polish at school and in the city, Yiddish at home.
Family was central in our lives. I had cousins who lived nearby, and we were very close. We’d see each other all the time, especially on the Jewish holidays. My favorite holiday was Purim. I’d wear a costume and we’d raise money for Palestine.
I had many Jewish friends. We’d ride our bikes, go to parties and sleep over at each other’s homes. It was a good life, quite normal in most respects.
But we didn’t socialize much with the gentiles. There was terrible anti-Semitism in Poland. We’d see signs around town:
“The Jews are Communists”
“Jews should go to Palestine”
“Jews are ruining our economy”
As the global Depression grew worse, so did the hatred against Jews. So we mostly stayed with our own people.
The Jewish community in Ciechanow was very close. People knew each other and took care of each other. They looked after the sick and needy. There was a commitment to the community. For instance, at the public school where I started, I remember there were pictures of Jesus on the wall. Wealthy Jews sometimes sent their children out of the country to be educated. The Jewish community saw a need for a local Jewish school, raised money from the community and got it built. I started attending the Jewish school at age 15, in 1937.
At 12, I joined Hashomer Hatzair and became a fervent Zionist. [The organization was founded in 1913 and is the oldest Socialist-Zionist youth group still in existence.] It was both educational and recreational. We went to lectures taught by college students about Palestine and Jewish history. We read books and heard reviews. We also played sports like ping-pong and billiards. It was very well-organized; we even had our own flag, with the inscription in Hebrew, “Chazak Ve’ematz,” which means “be brave, have courage.” When we marched with the flag during a summer camp outing, some local Poles would shout insults at us.
Some of the group members were among my best friends, for instance Tella Brush; we were like sisters. Another member was Roza Robota, who became famous for her bravery at Auschwitz.
Most local Jews grew up and stayed in our little neighborhood – going to school there, getting married there, raising a family there.
But that doesn’t mean we felt at home there. Our dream was to go to Palestine. We knew there was no future for us in Poland. Aside from the personal animosity, there were formal quotas against Jews in college, and restrictions against Jews in businesses, the professions and government.
My parents weren’t exactly supportive of our Zionist youth activities – they certainly didn’t want to us to move away – but they didn’t really have a choice. The younger generation is always going to go its own way.
Nevertheless, my mother gave me one piece of advice that later proved invaluable. She said I needed to learn a trade, and she taught me to sew so I could be a seamstress. Her feeling was, if you have a profession, wherever you go, you can take it with you.
I didn’t like sewing at first, but I did it to please my mother. I’m glad I did. After the war it enabled me to survive.
I was in my mid-teens in the mid-1930, old enough to know that things were growing extremely bad – for Jews in particular. The economy had been affected by the Depression, and of course, the Poles blamed the Jews. Anti-Semitism, always present, was getting worse. We read in the Jewish papers about Hitler’s rise to power, about “Mein Kampf” and his “prophecy” to exterminate the Jews should war start. Everyone believed the Germans were going to invade Poland, and it was bound to be a disaster for us. But there was nothing we could do, hardly anywhere to go. America didn’t open its doors, and neither did Palestine, which was controlled by the British.
Because of our concerns, my parents decided to send my brother Harry away. It was a terribly difficult decision. What parent wants to say goodbye to a child, perhaps forever? But they felt he was the most vulnerable – being the oldest boy, really a young man –if Poland was occupied. When the Germans signed a peace pact with Russia, he was sent there, in the hopes he’d be safe. As for the rest of us, my parents assumed the Germans wouldn’t bother with old people or children. After all, the Germans are a civilized people. So we thought.
Harry wasn’t the only one. Some of my friends from Hashomer Hatzair went to Russia, too. [There was no organized “route” for European Jews to escape to the Soviet Union. According to Prof. Benjamin Frommer of Northwestern University, they took advantage of the peace treaty to flee east, ahead of the expected German army. In the Soviet Union, most were arrested as stateless refugees and deported to gulags in Siberia.]
Chapter 2: Invasion
The Germans and their Soviet allies invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The Polish Army fought back but never had a chance.
The Germans got across the border in a matter of hours, and bombed the railway lines so people couldn’t get out by train. Their planes were painted with Polish insignias to confuse the Polish anti-aircraft batteries.
Such was the anti-Semitism there that when German soldiers arrived in the city, Poles sought them out to tell them which Jews had money and which Jews were rabbis. Wealthy and prominent Jews were arrested and held as hostages.
The Germans took the rabbis to their synagogues and made them remove the sacred Torahs from their arks. They went to the Jewish libraries and took out all the books. Then they threw the books and Torahs out in the street, and made the rabbis and other Jews burn them. I was there, I watched it happen.
Right away, some people suspected this was only the beginning. They said: “If they’ll burn books, they’ll burn people too.”
Some rabbis, hearing about the burning of the sacred books, snuck the Torahs out of the shul and buried them in cemeteries. The Germans discovered what they had done, and shot the rabbis.
Right away the killings began.
The Nazis went to Jewish businesses and cleaned them out, sent the money, the equipment and goods to Germany.
Jews were immediately restricted. Everyone was fingerprinted.
Within a few weeks the Germans issued orders making Jews sew yellow six-pointed Stars of David on our shirts and jackets, left front and right back. If a soldier didn’t like the way it was sewn, he could demand money. I was right outside our apartment one time when a German stopped me and said he didn’t like the way my stars were sewn. He said I had to pay three or four marks. I didn’t have the money, so he knocked me down and started to kick me. Fortunately my mother saw what was happening from the window and rushed down to the street and paid him.
There were new restrictions against the Jews all the time. One day we learned we couldn’t walk on the sidewalk, only along the curb. Another day it was decreed that Jews couldn’t walk together, only single file, one person at a time.
If Jews passed a building with German officers, they had to kneel and take off their caps. If they didn’t, they could be shot.
They made us give them our money. They took away our jewelry, our rings and watches, even the gold in our teeth. All this happened in the first few months of the occupation.
There was no place to hide. A German officer came to our house and went through the closets and drawers looking for our jewelry and clothes. He said, “You have better clothes. Where are you hiding them?” I denied it, I said, “We didn’t hide anything, that’s all we have.” He said, “I was here 20 years ago, in the First World War, and you chased us out. But this time we’re staying forever!”
The next horror was being ordered out of our homes and apartments. The Germans told us they were “renovating” them. But they tore them down. We learned quickly not to believe anything they told us.
Some Poles actually applauded when Jews left their homes.
Our family was forced to move into an apartment nearby, crammed with 8 or 10 other families. We were squeezed together. Conditions were terrible, and people began to get sick.
A boy where we were staying got typhus. He recovered, but I caught it from him. Since Jews weren’t permitted to go to a hospital or even a drugstore or to see a doctor, I was sent to a makeshift clinic, a single room in a farmhouse, a few kilometers from the city.
We lay on the floor, 10 of us, all deathly sick. There were no beds, no medications, nothing. A doctor lived upstairs, but he couldn’t do much. If you had a high fever, all he could do was put a cold compress on your face.
Every day people there were dying. I expected to die too. I don’t know how I survived, but I did.
I was there eight weeks, and finally released with a few other survivors. I could barely walk.
When I returned to Ciechanow, I was put to work cleaning streets and washing floors. It was hard work, and I was still weak. I told them I had just recovered from typhus, that I couldn’t do that kind of work. They didn’t believe me, they said no one recovered from typhus.
The Judenrat (the Jewish committee) made the assignments, and they would try to find us easier jobs if we weren’t well.
Chapter 3: Ghetto
Not long after my return to the city, the Germans announced that all the town’s Jews were to be deported. They had decided not to create a ghetto in Ciechanow – perhaps they felt the city was too beautiful to “deface” in that way – and instead established ghettos in two nearby towns. Half the Jews were to go to Mlawa; the other half to Neustadt.
Needless to say, we were terrified what this meant. We were to find out very quickly. In the middle of the night we were lined up and marched – everyone, even sick people and babies – to the old castle in Ciechanow. It took many hours.
We weren’t allowed to take a thing – no possessions, no money – they had mostly been taken from us already. We were herded through a castle doorway into a big room inside. We had to stand there, lined up, without moving, so they could count us. They wanted to make sure all the city’s Jews were accounted for. They warned us if a baby fell down and his mother picked him up, they would both be shot on the spot.
Then finally we were led back out, through the narrow doorway. Two rows of black-shirted einsatzkommandos, the killing squads, were on either side and they clubbed us with their rifles on the way out.
We were herded onto the back of trucks, and while we were climbing up, a German soldier pulled out a Jewish doctor, who was about 40, threw him on the ground and ground his boot into the man’s neck. For no apparent reason. Finally he pulled him up and threw him back on the truck.
We were driven to Neustadt, a small town 40 kilometers away. This is where we lived for a year.
They let us off the truck in Neustadt and for the next 20 minutes proceeded to beat us up. Then a German officer told us we had 15 minutes to find a place to stay. She said, “If you don’t, when I get back, you’ll all be shot.”
But the ghetto was already overcrowded, Jewish families from other towns and cities had been pouring in. It was a small area, maybe a few blocks long, and people were jammed 10 families to a room. We had nowhere to go.
So we ran into a stable. And that’s where we lived, with four or five other families, amidst the horses.
When we settled in, the Judenrat brought us some soup and welcomed us to our new “home.” We were scared, we didn’t know what to expect.
There was work for a few of the young people. During the day they were taken into town, or into neighboring villages, to sweep the streets, clean trains, clear snow, wash floors. I worked in a kitchen. But mostly there was nothing to do, no place to go, and no way to escape or place that we knew of to escape to.
Nobody knew what was going on outside the ghetto. There were no newspapers, and if they caught you with a radio, they shot you. People were getting sick and dying.
We begged the Germans, “Why don’t you shoot us and get rid of us?” They said, “No, we need the bullets for the front. You’re going to die anyway.”
My uncles Aron and Benjamin and 19-year-old cousin Rivka managed to escape. The Germans caught them and threw them in jail. They were going to hang them. The rule was, if you tried to run away and were caught, your own family had to hang you. They made the son hang the father!
But because my uncles were prominent people – Aron was a banker – the Judenrat convinced the Germans to hold the execution in Nowy Dwor, to spare the children from having to take part. So thankfully we didn’t witness the execution. But I made a vow. I promised myself that if I survived, I would go there to see their graves, and to make sure they were properly buried.
The Germans kept a registry of who was in the ghetto, maybe a thousand Jews.
The ghetto had a wall; no one could leave except for the few young people they sent to work. That was the only contact we had with the outside world.
A young soldier told us, “Before the war, I’d go to prison if I killed anyone. Now the more people like you I kill, the more medals I get.”
We lived in the stable for a year. Then the train came.
Chapter 4: Auschwitz
As always, it was done in the middle of the night. That’s how the Nazis did it, in the dark, so they could hide their crimes. It was November 1942.
They loaded us on a long cattle train, maybe 1,500 people in all, hundreds to a car. We didn’t know what was happening or where we were going. They told us, “We’re taking you to a place where you’ll have food and work. You’ll be happy there.” Of course we didn’t believe them.
We were locked in and packed together, with no food and no water. When babies cried the women gave them urine to drink.
I was on the train with my parents and younger brother Shia. At one point, when the train slowed to a stop, someone outside came up to the car with water. Before we could get any, the train started moving again. We were beyond help.
The train took three days and nights. People died, right in our midst, from thirst, disease or exhaustion. We got to Auschwitz in the middle of the third night. We didn’t know where we were, or what was going to happen.
They pushed us down from the train. We couldn’t see anything; we didn’t know what was going on. They told us to leave our clothes and possessions, such as we had.
One of the passengers, a doctor, must have had some idea of what was coming, because he pulled out of his pocket some pills and gave them to his wife and child to swallow. Then he took one himself. They were poison pills, so they could die together. Many other people would have done the same thing if they had the pills.
The Germans lined us up and made an immediate selection. Most of the people were sent to the left. They were marched off, but I didn’t see them go. [According to the “Memorial Book For the Community of Ciechanow,” a fascinating book-length compilation of stories from Jews who grew up there and survived the Holocaust, “The stone-faced German motions with one finger: “right and left – life and death.”]
And that was the end for my parents and brother. I never saw them again. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye, it was all done quickly. We didn’t know where they were being taken, but it turned out to be the gas chambers. We didn’t know there was such a thing.
The rest of us, maybe 200 men and women, were sent in the other direction, which turned out to be toward the camp.
We were marched past the main gate and saw the infamous sign, Arbeit Macht Frei, “Work will make you free.” We hoped that was a good omen. If we could work, we could survive.
My cousin Rachel was on the train too. I saw her on our second or third day there. Then, never again. She must have been taken by selection.
Men were marched off in one direction, women in another. We were assigned to barracks, about a thousand women in each. We were given beds, several people to a bed, all facing the same direction, not enough room even to turn around. Each bunk had three cots, stacked like tiers one on top of the other. There was no electricity, no heat, no running water, no toilets. There was no medicine and no access to care. If you got sick, you died.
Even amid all the chaos and confusion, we learned in short order what was going on. We heard from the Sonderkommandos, Jewish prisoners forced to work in the gas chambers and the crematoria. Their job was to remove the victims’ hair and gold from their teeth, and put the bodies in the ovens. Usually they were murdered after a few months, gassed like everyone else, and replaced by others. The Nazis didn’t want any eyewitnesses. The Sonderkommandos knew they were going to die, but they had no choice.
One of them said to us, “You’re in a bad place. They’re killing people here.”
I found out some friends from Ciechanow were at the camp. They said the same thing. “This is it. It’s the end of the world.”
The next day they cut our hair and gave us our striped clothes. We were tattooed, like cattle. I was 25702. The number is still clearly visible, seventy years later, on the outside of my left arm. Later I learned that tattoo “styles” would change. In 1941 the tattoos were bigger. A year later they started tattooing on the inside, and with smaller numbers. In late 1944, when the war stated going badly for the Germans, they stopped tattooing new prisoners altogether.
Even at a death camp, there was a routine, and we quickly learned it. We were awakened at 5 in the morning and herded outside for an immediate inspection. We took off our clothes and stood there naked – summer or winter, even when it was below zero, it made no difference – so they could examine us. If someone hid or was missing from the inspection, they were located in or outside the barracks and taken away to be shot.
A high-ranking German guard, I remember her name was Dreshler, walked along the lines and selected people for the gas chambers. If she saw someone with even the slightest imperfection – a pimple, a bruise – that was it: the person was taken away to the gas chambers. The thinner you were, the likelier you were to be selected. The Germans hated skinny prisoners. You “had no right to live,” as far as they were concerned, because you couldn’t work, you couldn’t “carry your weight.” Even if you were healthy, it made no difference: if you were thin, you’d get picked for the gas chambers.
The really emaciated prisoners were called Muselmann, they were like skeletons. These were the people who had given up. They couldn’t take it. They’d just lie in bed until they died. [The term, which was first used at Auschwitz and spread to other camps, may have derived from the German word for “Muslim,” or in Polish, Muzulman. These people were too weak to stand, they resembled Muslims prostrating themselves at prayer. Many prisoners were afraid of the Muselmann and avoided them for fear of being “contaminated” by their utter lack of a will to live.]
To avoid being selected, we’d drink a lot of water to look bloated. If there was no water, we’d eat snow. And we’d rub the snow on our cheeks, to make us look rosier, healthier.
The Germans figured if you had some fat on you, you were strong enough to work.
They treated us like animals. Sometimes we acted like animals.
Once when I was away from my bunk, a woman came by, a prisoner from another barracks, and snatched one of my shoes. Shoes were critical; if you didn’t have shoes, you couldn’t walk to work. And if you didn’t work, you went straight to the gas chambers.
Someone saw her do it and went up to her and said, “You stole Leah’s shoe.” The woman, the thief, said she wouldn’t return the shoe unless she got a whole loaf of bread. She wasn’t apologetic about it at all. “I’m not going to give you back the shoe unless I get a loaf of bread.” So a few of my friends said, “Leah, we’re going to collect the bread we’ve saved and make up a loaf for her.” I protested, but they said, “We starve so much, so we’ll starve a little more.” And they got my shoe back. I went up to the thief and said, ‘“How can you have the heart to take away their bread.” She must have thought I was threatening her, because she said, “They hung four girls last week. I’m going to tell the Germans you said bad things about them, they’ll hang you too.” She was threatening me!
But as bad as it was, most people tried to stick together and help each other, especially your own countrymen, because it was hard to communicate with people from other countries if you didn’t speak their language.
After the morning selection we were marched to work, which was usually an hour’s walk outside camp.
One time we were getting ready to go off to work. The women’s orchestra was playing; they played every day as we marched to work. I saw a guard point to me and beckon with her finger. When that happened, it meant for sure you were going to the gas chamber. I started out from the line. Of course I was afraid. I thought, this is it, my time has come. The guard said to me, “No no, not you. Her.” And she pointed to another woman, right next to me. She was very skinny. I was never skinny. I always had some fat on me.
Why weren’t we all simply executed or just sent to the gas chambers? We would have been, except for two things. We could work – that’s why we had been chosen to live, because when we arrived we looked young and healthy and strong enough. And the gas chambers were full from the people on the trains that arrived continuously, night and day, bringing with them Jews from all over Europe.
If there had been no prisoner trains the night before, say because of bad weather, they’d make selections for the gas chamber right from the morning inspection. I remember one particularly big selection; it was Hanukkah. There were hundreds of women in the barracks. Only three came back. I was one of them.
Why me? Why wasn’t I taken? Why wasn’t I selected to die?
Many times I almost was. They’d count out 50 people; I’d be the 51st. I was always the last one in line after the selections. It was sheer luck that saved me, that’s all. Luck and friends – I always had friends, and sometimes they could help me, sometimes I could help them. We were forced to live like animals, but that didn’t mean we had to be animals. We tried to help each other.
Usually the lines leading to the gas chambers moved quickly. The Germans made everything work fast. It was very efficient. They had to be; people were crying, begging, they were hysterical.
Sometimes though, there were so many people selected for the gas chambers they had to wait in line, sometimes for days.
I saw all this with my own eyes, because our barracks was just a few dozen meters away from one of the crematoriums. I could see the smoke from the chimneys, day and night. The crematoriums operated all the time. I could see people on their way in singing the Hatikvah. the national anthem of the Jewish people. They knew they were going to die.
I heard of a French woman, naked, who was on her way to the crematorium. A German soldier ordered her to dance for him. She had nothing to lose, she was going to die anyway, so she grabbed his gun and shot him. We were glad to hear about that.
After the morning inspection we were assigned to that day’s work detail. Usually we were 200 to a group. Work was almost always outside the camp, usually several kilometers away, up to an hour’s walk. Women’s work was the same as men’s. I cleaned rubble, dug ditches, moved sand and dirt from one place to another in a wheelbarrow.
We worked every day, seven days a week, in the snow, in the rain, in the cold; it didn’t make any difference.
Starved and weak as we were, we did what we had to do to survive. I was moving sand one day, trying to move as little as possible to conserve strength. Next to me was a German-Jewish woman who was very sick and having trouble keeping up. That was dangerous, because if a guard saw you couldn’t do the work, he’d shoot you. I whispered to her: “Do what I do.” I would take just a little sand and let it sift through my fingers. The guards couldn’t tell.
On the way to and from work, we’d see local Poles and they’d see us. Of course they saw. But they weren’t permitted to help us or to talk with us, even if they wanted to. They knew better. I read later that a woman tried to bring water to one of the prisoners. The guards shot her.
There was hardly anything to eat or drink. For lunch we had one loaf of black bread for four people.
If someone died at work, or while we were being marched to or from work – and that happened a lot, from starvation, overwork, disease, beating, shooting – we had to carry that person back to the camp on boards. It took three people, two carrying long sticks for the body, like a stretcher, and a third person to lift and hold onto the legs. Guards watched us every second, so we couldn’t run away. But of course they didn’t help.
They brought us back from work between 5 and 6 o’clock in the evening.
Dinner was some thin soup and pumpernickel. We ate from a schissel, a bowl, the same bowl we used to defecate in. Sometimes you didn’t have time to clean your bowl.
Once we came back from work all wet, it had been raining. A woman prisoner grabbed our blanket – the one we had for our cot – and ran away. I ran after her, and grabbed the blanket back. If you didn’t defend what was yours, you could die.
Later, just before the death march in 1945, a woman stole my shoe, like before. But this time it was more serious, because we’d heard rumors that we were going to be evacuated from the camp and marched across Poland. So I had gotten decent shoes from someone I knew from Ciechanow.
I took off my shoe because my foot was swollen. She grabbed it, I’m sure it was the same woman who stole my shoe before. This time I said to myself, “Now, I’m going to fight for my life, even if it’s the end.” I went up to her and said, “I don’t have anything to fight with you. But I’ve got nails, and I’m going to choke you to death if you don’t give me my shoe.” She started yelling, “Help, help, she’s robbing me.” I told her, “Fine, call the people, they’ll help me kill you.” I started choking her until she dropped the shoe.
Some of my friends said, “It doesn’t pay to live in this world.” So they touched the electric fence and committed suicide.
This was true in the men’s camps, too, with some of the prisoners I knew from Ciechanow. They were well-known, respected, intelligent people – judges, lawyers, doctors. They couldn’t take it and committed suicide.
Why didn’t I? I could easily have touched the fence. In a second, it would have been over. I thought about it, but I felt I could stand the hunger better than most of the others. It didn’t bother me as much. I figured as long as my body holds out, I’m not going to kill myself. I’ll wait and see what happens.
One time at work I stopped to eat some bread, which was forbidden. The guard saw me and started beating me with the butt end of his rifle. I collapsed unconscious, all I could see were black circles.
(After the war, the Germans were forced to pay reparations. The amount was based on many factors, including how physically abused we had been. I told the doctor about my beating. He said, “It didn’t make you any worse,” and denied the claim. Now I have no hearing on that side, so obviously it got worse.)
There were so many close calls. We were frightened all the time. Death was all around us, always there. I assumed every selection was my last. I thought for sure I was going to die, it was just a matter of when. How could you survive there?
During one large selection, I was pretty sure I was going to be picked. How could my luck continue to hold? A friend of mine, who had been working in the washroom, said, “You can see they’re taking away hundreds of people. Why are you waiting?” I said, “What can I do?” She said, “Come with me, I’ll give you a shovel, they’ll think you’re working.” Sure enough, they selected hundreds of people that day, but I was saved.
Another time we were told they needed 50 healthy women for a good job inside the camp, in a building where it was warm and dry. I ran to get in line. I thought I was lucky; I was one of the first. A girl from Czechoslovakia took me aside and said, “Don’t do it, they’re lying. They’re taking people to do experiments. You better run away.” So I ran off, I hid in the crowd. With thousands of people in the camp, sometimes you could get lost.
You never knew which way to go, which path might lead to safety, which to death.
But that was risky, running off. Most of the time they knew where you were, there were kapos everywhere, they were guarding you all the time.
Still, people figured out ways to cheat or undermine the system. Some prisoners could bribe their way to better jobs, inside the camp, under a roof, where it was warm and dry. Also, there was a black market for food, clothes and other things. These were items that were stripped from people when they came into the camp or went to the gas chambers.
Some women would save their bread by tying it to a string and carrying it around their necks. (Not me, I always ate my bread right away.) A few women would carry scissors around and try to cut off the bread to eat for themselves.
Once a woman I knew took an extra piece of bread when a guard saw her. He yelled, “Put that down!” and started to whip her, thirty times with the strap. She was screaming, it was terrible. Finally she fell unconscious. When the guard left, I brought her some of my water to drink. It revived her. After the war I saw the same woman on the boat to America.
Another time a woman named Eva brought a potato back from her work assignment to the camp. They caught her. For punishment they said, no food. And to make sure she didn’t eat during the day, they took away her shoes. They knew there was no way she could go out on her work detail; it was too cold to walk all that distance barefoot. They did this for six weeks. They were starving her to death. We weren’t supposed to talk to her, so I walked by and said quietly, not to her but so she could hear me, “Go to the latrine, and look in the corner under the door.” I had left her my potato, so she would have something to eat. I was starving, but I knew she was starving more. Of course I would have gotten in trouble if they had caught me. But that’s what you did to help someone in trouble. I met her and her daughters many years later in Florida.
The guards would kick you and knock you down for no reason. They didn’t need a reason. It was like the guard in the ghetto who told us, “Before the war I’d go to prison for killing people. Now I get medals.” When that happened, the best response was to ignore it. When I got knocked down I would just stand up and go about my business like nothing happened. But some people couldn’t get up from the beatings.
Once I was beaten severely by a guard. He hit me on my head, again and again, with the butt of his rifle. He was vicious; he attacked a lot of us. When we got back to the barracks, one of my friends said, “What happened to you?” She applied some medicine to my wounds. You know what we used for medicine? Urine.
Auschwitz took away your belief in God. No one there for any length of time believed in God, even the most religious people. It’s impossible to explain, and impossible to describe, what happened there. There’s not enough ink and paper in this world to describe it. It was hell on earth.
Only one thing kept us alive: revenge. We wanted to live to take revenge on the Germans, to make it to the end of the war and to see that justice was done.
People ask, “Why didn’t you fight back? There were many thousands of you, far more Jews than Germans.” I hate it when they say that. We had nothing, no food and no clothes. We were starving. They had guns. How were we supposed to fight them? It’s a miracle anyone survived, without food, getting beaten, standing naked in the freezing cold, sick without medicine or care. A miracle.
And then there was the isolation and hopelessness. In all the time I was there, more than two years, we never knew what was happening outside the camp, or in the war. All we knew for sure was that the Germans were strong. Look how they had conquered Europe.
We didn’t think we would make it. Near the end of the war we saw American planes overhead, but they didn’t bomb the camp. We were happy anyway; we figured the planes were heading to a higher-priority target, like a munitions factory.
If the war had lasted just a couple of months longer, Hitler would have finished all the Jews.
The German soldiers threatened to finish us off regardless of how the war ended. When they saw us watching the Allied planes, they said, “Don’t be happy. If the war ends at noon, we’ll kill you at 11:45.”
Chapter 5: Uprising
My last two months weren’t different from the previous two years. It was still as dangerous as ever. In one respect, it was worse. As the war started to turn against the Germans, there was less food. Supplies began to run out. They’d give us a small loaf of pumpernickel for 10 people. We had to divide it among ourselves.
We had no idea what was going on outside the camp. The new prisoners coming in might have known something, but they went straight to the gas chambers. We never saw them.
No one had a radio, of course. It was dangerous even to have a writing implement. If the Nazis found you with a pencil, a scrap of paper, anything – let’s say you were keeping track of the days or writing a journal – you were finished. A Czechoslovakian girl I knew there kept notes. They found her notes and shot her. Her two sisters volunteered to die with her. If she was going to die, they said they didn’t want to live either.
Near the end we heard rumors about a possible uprising.
We knew there was a plot – everyone knew – we just didn’t know the details, we didn’t know when or how it was supposed to take place. Of course, we kept quiet about it, but it was a topic of conversation.
What I was told later by one of the Sonderkommandos was that Polish resistance fighters were supposed to help the revolt, but they never came.
It involved Roza Robota, whom I knew from before the war in Ciechanow. She was a fellow Zionist, we went on training trips together with Hashomer Hatzair.
At the camp, she plotted with three other women and several men. There were a few others, too, but not many. The fewer people involved, the less chance of word getting out.
When we heard the explosion we figured it was starting. They had set off a bomb, then cut the fence wires and ran out from the camp. But the sky filled up with German planes, and the planes cut them down. The Germans must have known about the plot too.
Roza and several other plotters managed to escape, briefly, before they were captured. The Nazis tortured them to find out who was involved. They beat them with leather straps reinforced with steel rods. Roza and the three other women never talked. She knew she was going to die, but she told a visitor “chazak.” It’s the Hebrew word for “courage,” what we said to each other in the Zionist group. The inscription on the Hashomer Hatzair flag was: “Chazak Ve’emat.” It means, “be brave, have courage.”
The Nazis hung them, and we were all herded out to witness the hangings. Before she died, from the gallows, Rosa yelled out “Zemstadt!” which is Polish for “revenge.” We all heard her.
[According to Wikipedia, gunpowder was smuggled from a munitions factory in another Auschwitz camp to Robota, who worked in the clothing detail. She in turn smuggled it to the Sonderkommandos, who in October 1944 launched the attack. They partly destroyed one crematorium and killed several SS guards. Some managed to escape, though they were captured the same day. Of those who did not die in the uprising itself, 200 were forced to strip, lie face down, and were shot in the back of the head. A total of 451 Sonderkommandos were killed. The explosion blew the roof off one of the crematoria. With the Russians closing in, and the Nazis intent on hiding their crimes, they decided to destroy the other crematoria. “As a result of the bravery of these women,” Wikipedia reports, “countless Jewish deaths were averted.”]
We were happy there was an uprising. Even though it failed, and despite the torture, the beatings, the deaths, we were very happy.
Chapter 6: Death March and Liberation
On January 18, 1945, the Germans announced we were going to leave the camps. We were going on a “toten march,” a death march.
As Russian troops started to close in, the Nazis dismantled the remaining crematoriums. They didn’t want the world to see what happened there. But that meant they couldn’t finish us off in the showers, so we were told that in a day or two we were going to be evacuated from the camp and sent off on a march, to Germany.
We talked about hiding, but the Germans warned us against it. They said they’d search everywhere and if they found anyone hiding, that person would be shot. I said, “Listen, girls, if the war is coming to an end, it doesn’t pay to take a chance, let’s go.”
In a few cases, prisoners were transferred to other camps that were still functioning. And a few prisoners were left at Auschwitz and liberated by Russian soldiers.
All the rest of us, tens of thousands of people, went on the death march.
[Wikipedia puts the number of marchers at 60,000. According to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, there were three reasons for the march. The SS did not want prisoners falling into Allied hands to tell the story of the atrocities. Also, they thought it was possible prisoners could be used to continue to make armaments once they were inside Germany. And SS leaders believed they might be able to use prisoners as hostages to negotiate a peace with the Allies and thus assure the survival of the Third Reich.]
There were guards with us, of course, and their dogs. They told us we had to run, not walk. So we ran, I don’t know for how long. If you stopped to catch your breath, they let the dogs loose on you, or they shot you.
Many people didn’t make it. They had swollen feet, or they didn’t have shoes, or they were too weak to run. They died quickly. There was ice and snow on the ground. You couldn’t live long without something to protect your feet.
The Germans ran alongside us, not only to guard us, but because they were running for their lives too. They knew Allied soldiers were closing in.
At one point a car came by and someone threw a piece of bread out the window. Everybody ran for the bread, one loaf for thousands of starving people. There was a riot, and many people were crushed. I stayed back, I could see what was going to happen.
A friend of mine, Nadja Goldstein – we went to school together – wanted to quit. I think she had diabetes. She was in bad shape. She said, “I’m not running anymore, let them shoot me. I can’t make it. Let me die.” Another friend of mine, Hilda Lindenberg, and I took Nadja by the arm. “You have to go,” I said to her. “The war is coming to an end, and now you’re going to give up, after two-and-a-half years?” We helped her back on her feet. She still couldn’t walk, so we schlepped her, and she survived the march. Not only that, she made it to New York. She got married and had a family, two children. I went to the wedding of one of her children.
We saw local people, of course, but they were afraid to come out and help us. They knew they’d get in trouble. They didn’t want to get involved. I heard a woman came out with some water, and they shot her.
After weeks of marching – I don’t know how many, we had no idea of time – they put us on open trucks, it was the dead of winter. In February we came to the Ravensbruck camp, in Germany. [That’s a distance of about 630 kilometers from Auschwitz, depending on the route they took, and would have taken at least a month to get there on foot.] At Ravensbruck they sterilized people and did experiments on women and children. By the time we got there, the operations were shutting down.
We stayed there a couple of weeks, and then they took us to another camp, called Neustadt, about 80 kilometers from Hamburg. It was so crowded, maybe a thousand people, we had to sleep standing up.
Some time later we were marched to still another camp. Nearby there were some POWs, French, English and Polish pilots whose planes had been shot down.
They told us the war was over. We learned we were free – liberated! I think the date was May 2, 1945. We didn’t have a calendar, we didn’t have newspapers, so we couldn’t be sure.
I had been a prisoner – in the Neustadt ghetto and Auschwitz death camp and the forced march into Germany – for almost three years.
Hearing the news, the Germans fled – not just the guards but the local people too. They figured we would kill them. When they left we went into their houses to look for clothes and food.
I ate a lot of sugar and got sick. But I knew not to eat too much food so soon after being starved for years. A lot of people ate too much and got really sick. Some died.
Shortly after that, we started to see Russian and American troops. But there was no time to celebrate; it was still very dangerous for us.
There were terrible accidents. A friend of mine started a little fire on the ground to warm up some bread. She didn’t know it, but her fire was right above some explosives that had been buried. It blew up and she was killed instantly. I saw it happen. Two-and-a-half years in Auschwitz, then she’s liberated and she dies like that.
Amazingly, I was just as afraid for my life after we were liberated as I was at Auschwitz. There was no government and no security. Dangerous prisoners had been freed and were roaming the countryside.
A Russian officer told us, “You better be careful. They’ve freed the Russian POWs, some of them are very bad people.” He said they were criminals – murderers and rapists. He told us he would stay with us and guard us that night. We were 10 women; we would have been no match for these people.
Sure enough, that night some Russian soldiers approached our cottage. When they saw the officer, they fled. He saved our lives.
But the next day he told us he couldn’t stay with us anymore, we had to leave. He said there was no government here, it was anarchy, and it would be extremely dangerous for us to stay.
So we left. We didn’t know where to go. We came to a rail yard. There were trains sitting there, they had broken down. We hid under the trains that night. I think the Russian soldiers were looking for us, but they couldn’t find us.
The next day we were very lucky. We saw a horse tied to an empty wagon, unattended. My friend rode us out of there. We came upon a Jewish group that was helping survivors. Finally, after three years, we had arrived at a safe place – at least for the time being.
Chapter 7: After the War
Of the thousands of Jews from Ciechanow who were sent to Auschwitz [6,000, according to The Nizkor Project], only about 100 survived, some 80 men and 20 women.
Of those, many were killed when they returned to Poland. That’s how bad it was. The Poles had taken over our homes and businesses. They had our money. They didn’t want us back.
The Judenrat warned us. They said Poland is a graveyard; no one will survive there.
But I had to return to Neustadt, to the ghetto we had been sent to from Ciechanow. I had a promise to keep.
My parents and younger brother died in Auschwitz, on the day we arrived there, Nov. 22, 1942. My other brother, Harry, had gone to Russia. I still didn’t know what had happened to him. I hoped he was still alive.
The rest of my family were killed while we were in the ghetto in Neustadt: my father’s two brothers, Aron and Benjamin Kirshenbaum; my cousin, Rivka; and four others. Altogether, there were seven victims.
They were hung on June 20, 1942, as punishment because my Uncle Benjamin had managed to escape from the ghetto. They found him and they hung him and his family. Rivka didn’t want to be hung so they shot her. I heard that before she died, she wrote on the wall, “Here lies the Kirschenbaum family.”
But when I went back, I couldn’t find the inscription on any wall. Instead I learned they were all buried in a ditch in a nearby town, Nowy Dwor. I asked some people what had happened. The Judenrat in Ciechanow had paid off the Gestapo to have them hung in Nowy Dwor, so their relatives wouldn’t have to witness it, and to spare them from taking part, because the Nazi policy was the son had to hang the father.
When I got to Nowy Dwor I found people who remembered the execution. They told me the names of the victims, where they were buried and what happened. They told me the exact day, seven people, two brothers, the girl who didn’t want to be hung so they shot her, everything.
So I went to the authorities to get permission to bury them properly in the Jewish cemetery. They told me the remains had to be buried in a single casket. That wasn’t my intention, but what could I do, I had no choice. I was the only one of my immediate family to my knowledge who survived. I had an obligation.
The next day I had them dug up. Their hands were tied behind their backs – that was how they had died. I had them placed in a single casket and reburied in the Jewish cemetery. I had a sign made up with their names printed:
Oraz Dwoje Innuch
The people in town must have reported me, because the police came and accused me of being a spy. “A spy?” I said, rolling up my sleeve. “I’ve got a number from Auschwitz, what kind of spy can I be?”
Their answer was, “Oh, anyone can have numbers tattooed on their arm.” Can you believe it? The Communists believed that spies were everywhere, even hiding in the cemeteries. So they arrested me and kept me in jail for a day.
That’s how the Poles treated Jewish people after the war. But I was glad to have given my family a proper burial.
After that I went back to Ciechanow, my hometown. There was nowhere else to go. I went to the mayor’s office and asked for help. I said, “We just came back from the camps and we don’t have anything.” An official handed me a key to the Jewish school. “It’s a place to stay.” I said, “Nothing else, no other help?” He said, “There’s nothing else we can do for you.” The Polish people didn’t want to help us at all.
So I slept on the floor in my clothes. We didn’t have anything. I couldn’t go back to my house, it wasn’t there anymore. Instead, I went to my uncle’s house. I told the people there that it had belonged to my family. They laughed. They knew I counted for nothing in Poland. The Poles had everything: our homes, our money, our businesses. The war was like a lottery they won.
Because anti-Semitism was still so strong after the war, I changed my name from Leah to Lonia. It was a more Polish-sounding name. I figured it was better not to sound like a Jew in Poland.
To make money, I did a little sewing. It paid for some food, but I was still desperate; there was very little work, very little food and no assistance from the government or the people.
It was very dangerous there. We heard about four Jewish women in a different city who were killed. The Polish people were still killing Jews!
A friend of mine, a man I knew from the yeshiva, saw me, and said, “You’ve got to leave, there’s nothing for you here. You’re starving, you’re going to die.”
At his encouragement, I went to a kibbutz in Lodz. It was better than being on your own, because at least you were with other survivors, and you had food to eat and a roof over your head. After six months there I moved to another kibbutz in town; you were only allowed to stay six months at these places. There wasn’t enough room to stay indefinitely.
All the while I was desperate for news about my brother Harry. He had left for Russia shortly before the war. After that we lost contact. For all the years of the war I never heard from him or about him. But still, I never gave up hope of seeing him again. After the war, whenever I met Russian soldiers, I would ask if they knew Harry Kirshenbaum. I would add his name to lists of missing persons and submit it to radio stations broadcasting appeals to reunite lost family members.
Finally, from some of the returning Poles who had been in Russia during the war I found out that he survived! They gave me an address to write to. I was able to get in touch with him and sent him papers in Russia that allowed him to get to a settlement camp in Bialystok, about 200 kilometers east of Ciechanow.
That’s where we were reunited. It had been eight years since we had last seen each other. It was very emotional. All that time he didn’t know if anyone from our family was still alive. We were both happy and sad; we were the only ones left.
He told me what had happened to him. He didn’t fight in Russia. Instead he was sent to a gulag in Siberia. As bad as that sounds, it was better than being in the Russian army or a German concentration camp. In the gulag you could stay alive.
Our joy at being reunited was short-lived: the situation in the city was very grim. Some Jews returning from the camps tried to get their children back. They had given their babies to the Poles for safekeeping before they were taken away. Now the children were five and six years old. They didn’t know their parents and didn’t want to go with them. So their parents tried to take them forcibly. It was terrible. To make things worse, the Polish people started to repeat the old libel about Jews wanting their babies’ blood for matzos.
We heard of five Jewish refugees who were pulled off a train and shot. We had to learn to defend ourselves. I trained to use a gun.
After a couple of months, the Bialystok police warned us there was going to be more violence. They could predict it, but they said there was nothing they could do to prevent it.
Sure enough, some of the Jews from Bialystok who were on their way to Warsaw were pulled off a train and killed. It was the start of another pogrom.
It was clear Harry and I couldn’t stay there any longer, so we decided to go to Warsaw. From Warsaw many Jews were being smuggled by the Haganah to Palestine. [The Haganah was a Jewish paramilitary defense organization.]
But it was dangerous in Warsaw too, for the same reasons. The Jews who returned asked for their homes and property back. Naturally the Poles didn’t want to return their possessions. It was far easier to kill them. Nobody would miss them; they didn’t have any families left. You could see the bodies on the streets of Warsaw every time you went outside.
These massacres were happening all over Poland. No one knows how many Jews died after the war.
[According to a New York Times review of the 2006 book, “Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz” by Jan T. Gross, “…surviving Polish Jews, having escaped the fate of 90 percent of their community – three million people – returned to their homeland to be vilified, terrorized and, in some 1,500 instances, murdered, sometimes in ways as bestial as anything the Nazis had devised.”]
Since it wasn’t safe in Poland, Harry and I made a drastic decision. We decided to go to Austria. The Poles made arrangements for Jews in Warsaw to march to Czechoslovakia and from there to Austria.
It wasn’t easy – we had to walk. But after what we had been through in the gulag and Auschwitz, it seemed like the best and safest course. Most of the emigres were refugees from Russia, like Harry.
We slept in the woods at night. Finally we got to Austria, and stayed in a Displaced Persons camp in Bad Ischl. That’s where I met my future husband, Oscar Mosak.
Oscar was an Auschwitz survivor too. In fact, he arrived at the camp the same day and on the same train as I did, on November 22, 1942. But we didn’t meet then. We didn’t know each other at the camp – the men and women were separated from each other.
During the death marches at the end of the war he went to Mauthausen, a labor camp in Austria, about 500 kilometers south of Auschwitz. He was liberated by Russian soldiers in Ebensee, a subcamp of Mauthausen. From there he made his way to Bad Ischl.
Oscar had two younger brothers who went to Russia and joined the Army. When Germany invaded Russia, they were killed in the early days of the fighting.
The night after we met, he wanted to take me out to a show. I didn’t know him, so I turned him down. But he was persistent. The next day he asked me out again, and this time I accepted.
Oscar had an uncle in Chicago, Louis Mosak, and he wrote to him asking for help to get to America. That was his best hope to get out of Europe, because it was almost impossible to go to Palestine. His uncle was a poor man, but he went to his shul, and someone there agreed to sponsor Oscar. So he got the papers to emigrate. The papers were good for two people. That’s when we decided to get married, so we could both go to America. I had known him only two days. But that’s what happened in those days. It was right after the war. Except for Harry, I was alone. Oscar was alone. Why not be together?
We were married on Sept. 28, 1946, in Bad Ischl. It wasn’t easy. I wasn’t supposed to leave my barracks. So I snuck out and we got married in town.
With his papers we figured we’d be able to leave Austria and go to America right away. It wound up being much harder and took much longer than we thought, because the Russians had occupied Poland and Austria, and they weren’t letting people out. Their attitude was, “You’re going to live here, you’re going to work here, you’re going to die here.”
We had papers, but it didn’t make any difference. To the Russians, papers meant nothing. One time we started out on a train to Germany, but the Russians came on the train and kicked us off. They said, the same thing: “You’re going to work here, you’re going to die here!”
The Judenrat did what they could to help us. Without them, we never would have survived. After all, there were no jobs. All we could do was wait.
But it had been two years since the war had ended and we were becoming desperate. We decided to take a chance, to flee to the Allied zone in southern Germany. It wasn’t that far away, only about 60 kilometers. From there we thought it was possible to get to America.
We met someone who said his father helped smuggle people from Vienna across the mountains into Germany. He said if we paid him, he’d smuggle us too. I was concerned. What if someone caught us in the mountains? He said that was no problem: just say we had lost our cow!
So we crossed the mountains. There were five of us, from Bad Ischl. Harry didn’t come with us; he didn’t have papers to America. Our plan was to get there and bring him over later.
We left in the evening, when it was dark. It was a good thing; if I had seen the mountains during the daytime, I wouldn’t have tried it.
We climbed all night. When we came down from the mountain, it was early the next morning, still dark. We didn’t know where we were. We saw a couple working in the fields. We were exhausted and desperate. I took a chance and walked up to them and said, “Are you Jewish?” The man answered yes, why? I said we just came from Austria, we have papers to go to America, but we don’t know where to go from here. He said he would take us to a hotel.
At the hotel, the manager took one look and told us, “I’m sorry, we have no room.” I said, “Listen, this isn’t Nazi Germany any more. I’m not afraid. I’m going to stay here. What are you going to do about it?” So he let us stay, even giving us a room for a few hours.
When it became light we went out and found the local Judenrat. They gave us food. I’m not sure where this was, it was a big city. They helped us get passage to America.
First we went to Bremen, and then to Bremerhaven, where we sailed to America.
We had wanted to go to Palestine, but at that time there was no way to get there except to smuggle yourself. I couldn’t bring myself to do that; I was done with that, with what it would have taken.
The boat we were on to America was a transport ship, not a passenger ship. Conditions were terrible, everyone got sick, people were throwing up. We slept on hammocks in the bottom of the boat.
The boat sailed to Boston, and from there we immediately boarded a train to Chicago.
We were happy to leave Europe and arrive in America, even though I knew only one person, my cousin, Martin Kirshenbaum, whose father was my Uncle Benjamin. I contacted him to let him know we were on our way, finally, to America.
Martin had gotten out of Ciechanow before the war and ended up in the Shanghai Ghetto. Afterwards he managed to immigrate to America.
[The creation in Shanghai of a protective enclave for Jews was due in part to the efforts of the Japanese Vice Consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara. He arranged for thousands of Jewish refugees to cross Russia by train, and to sail from Vladivostok to Japan, and then to Shanghai, China, which was occupied and controlled by the Japanese. Other Jews came by boat from Italy. Eventually as many as 20,000 Jews lived in the ghetto there. Even though the Japanese were part of the German Axis, they never subscribed to the Germans’ Aryan race policy, and never cooperated with the Germans in sending Jews back. Though conditions in Shanghai were harsh for the Jews, there were no walls in the ghetto, they lived much like their poor Chinese neighbors. As a result of this safe haven in the Far East, they survived the war.]
Chapter 8: Life in America
We got to Union Station in downtown Chicago on a Saturday night. No one was waiting for us, and we didn’t know how to use the pay phone.
We were supposed to be met by Louis Mosak, who had arranged for us to get our papers. But he wasn’t there.
We sat up all night in the station. In the morning I heard some cleaning women talking in Polish. I said to them, “Can you help us? We just arrived and we don’t know how to get in touch with our relative here.” So they looked Louis up in the phone book and we called him and he came to pick us up. It turned out he hadn’t known when we would be arriving.
He drove us to his house on the southwest side, on Douglas Boulevard, in the Jewish neighborhood. Louis and his wife Bertha were very poor, but they treated us well.
The first thing I did was start school at the JPI to learn English. [The Jewish People’s Institute was the predecessor organization to the Jewish Community Centers. A JPI center opened at 3500 S. Douglas Boulevard in 1927 to serve the growing Jewish immigrant community there.]
One of our first visitors was a landsman from Ciechanow, Joe Izkovich. Of course I recognized him. It was his sister-in-law who, aside from my mother, taught me how to sew, how to be a seamstress.
He mentioned that he worked in a clothing factory on Green Street. I said to him, “Do you think you could get me a job there? We can’t support ourselves right now, we have no money.” I told him I couldn’t get any help from the Joint [the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, one of the largest and oldest Jewish aid groups, founded in 1914], because they wouldn’t talk to you if you came to America through a sponsor. [Presumably because people with sponsors already had support and assistance.]
He said he’d be happy to ask. His manager said sure, bring her in. I was lucky, they were looking for people to work.
Joe took me there on the bus. It turns out they didn’t have a job at the machine, so I was assigned to the finishing section, sewing the pinned-up ladies’ clothes.
They knew I was a survivor – they could see my number – but no one asked about it. People didn’t want to hear about such terrible things.
It was wonderful to have a job, but it meant we had to find another place to live. The Mosaks were ultra-religious; they began the Shabbos at 1 o’clock on Fridays. The manager said, “I’m Jewish too, but Shabbos doesn’t begin until 6. If you want to work here, you have to stay until 6, like everyone else.”
So we looked in the paper and found a place to stay nearby with another family, a woman with two teenage daughters and a son. The lady made a room for us in one of her closets! She put in a bed. No chair, no radiator.
Next morning I got to work downtown, I had to be there on time, to punch a card. But the girls were using the washroom; they had to put on their makeup. So I washed up in the sink.
From then on I’d get up early to use the washroom. It was a very hard life. Many times, until I started to make some money, I’d go to bed hungry. I’d have to borrow a little money from the lady whose apartment we were staying in until I got my check at the end of the week.
I was sick of being poor, of being hungry and having nothing. I had been poor for so long, now I wanted to make money. And that’s what I did. I did it on my own. We didn’t have any help from the Jewish organizations.
I worked very hard – Saturdays, overtime, vacation time. There were times I’d be the only one working, everyone else was off.
It was piecework: the more you worked, the more you made. Pretty soon I was making $90 a week, while the other women were making $30. Some of them couldn’t stand it, they were jealous. I had just gotten to this country and already I was making far more money than they were. They wanted to know how I could do that; I wasn’t even in the union.
So I went to the union office, but it cost $100 to join. I didn’t have that kind of money. One of the men at the union, he was Jewish, took me aside and said, quietly, “You don’t have to spend $100 to join, give me $10.” So that’s how I could afford it.
As soon as I made a little money, I ran out and bought a television and a radio, so I could learn something.
Finally, we got our own apartment on 16th Street. I fixed up the place, and then I learned it was a terrible neighborhood, very unsafe. People slept on the street. One night very late someone knocked on our door. I didn’t answer it; I don’t expect people at that hour. My neighbor did, it was a man with a gun. The next day my neighbor’s wife said to me, “You’re smarter than my husband, he answered the door.”
We moved to another place on Douglas Boulevard. But we only stayed a couple of months there, then we rented from another couple. It was fairly common: you moved when you could afford a better place in a better neighborhood.
My husband was a tailor and he opened a dry cleaning store. Within a few years my daughters were born. I’m very proud that I was able to provide a good life for them, and I’m proud of what they did. They took piano lessons, they went to Hebrew School, they went to college.
They each have a daughter and a son. Esther has a master’s degree from Harvard in education. Doris has devoted her life to educating people about the Holocaust and our experiences. She speaks at schools and leads tours at the Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Illinois.
I couldn’t have survived in America without her help. She has made it worthwhile to have lived. It was worth all the pain and suffering.
Harry came here too. I brought him to the States in 1949. He got married and had three children. Tragically, he was killed in a car accident in 1969, right after he got his driver’s license.
Chapter 9: Reflections
In 2012 I changed my name back to Leah Kirshenbaum. I wanted to reclaim the identity that had been stolen from me by the Nazis and the Poles seventy years earlier.
Hardly anyone I knew from my childhood survived the Holocaust. I have a photo of our Zionist youth group. There I can see Laibel Golick, Roza Pashorek, Roza Robota and her sister, Malka Leventhal. There’s Hinda Kahane, and her cousin, Olga. Also Mala Silvershtrom, Hy Garfinkel, Moisha Schlezinger, Malka Shtipenholtz, Laya Schultz, Zisa Bronstein, Chaim Gogol, Laya Altus. And there were many others.
Of this entire group, only four survived.
I have another photo of our graduating class at the Jewish school. Of 70 people, only four survived: One lives in Canada, one in Detroit, and there are two of us in Chicago.
When my children were growing up I never told them about the war. I was too busy working; I still work. I figured they’d find out from books.
I like working. It’s good to be busy. If I didn’t work, I might be in an institution now.
Years ago I found out this nice Jewish couple who had taken me in for a few days in Ciechanow, when I returned there after the war, had moved to Israel. They were in a mental institution. A lot of people who survived the war, they couldn’t make it afterwards. They had to be institutionalized.
But working, it helps to occupy your mind. Otherwise you’re going to go crazy thinking about the camps. This way you’re busy working, you don’t have time to think about it.
I saw the movie “Schindler’s List.” I’m glad they made the movie. But to me what these people experienced was a piece of cake, a luxury hotel, compared to what we went through at Auschwitz. The factories where they worked didn’t have the crematoria, the beatings, the killings.
I couldn’t survive now. Sometimes you get tired of surviving. Even with my family, I feel guilty: why should I have lived when my parents and brother and most of the others didn’t make it?
Some people think that once you survive the Holocaust, everything else is easy. That’s not true. Life after the camps was hard. Poland after the war was a nightmare. Even here in America, while our lives weren’t threatened, it was very hard to get by. There were many times in the early years in Chicago that I hardly slept. I’d get home and have to cook, clean, help out at Oscar’s store, go to PTA meetings, take the kids to Hebrew school, pick them up.
When Oscar got sick, I had to take care of him.
But still, it’s amazing to be here, to have survived the war, to have lived to a ripe old age, to have children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.
Every year, every day, every minute is precious. After all, we didn’t think we’d make it. Because that’s what the Germans said: “We’re going to finish you all.” But they were wrong.
Miraculously, some of us survived.
Based on personal interviews in 2011 plus an interview taped April 5, 1995, by the USC Shoah Foundation. Written in 2011, posted in September 2014
what a beautiful piece and what a magnifcent tribute to a remarkable woman. Great job Lester. You can see this was a labor of love.
An amazing story, Les. She’s obviously a survivor, and lucky. How did knowing her, and hearing this and writing about it affect you?
Thank you John. Before I met Lonia I really did not know much about the Holocaust; thankfully our families were here a generation before then. (Otherwise we wouldn’t be.) Knowing more about it is something I think every person, certainly every Jew, needs to do, sort of the flip side of knowing Shakespeare, the Bible and Beethoven: as part of our common heritage, so that we can try to fathom human experience and capability from top to bottom.
Thanks for sharing this, Lester. Every individual’s story is different, and I find I learn from each and every one.
Les, what an amazing story. What an incredible woman. How did you meet her?
I visited Ciechanow in May. My father was born there, but came to the US in the 1920’s Unfortunately, his brother and family were killed in Auschwitz. They were part of the wealthy Jews that the Nazis took first. We had a guide in Ciechanow and he related many of the details that were in this story.