When I first began to be interested in history I was mainly oriented toward the 20th Century and that of the Second World War. I could not wait to begin a new book about the war and learn as much as I could, being so young, I could not fathom that the names, places, and events that I was reading about carried so much context behind them because, ultimately, it was about real people and their very real lives. Thus, I ask you, have you ever dreaded taking up a book? Perhaps most would think this way when presented with a large tome like War and Peace or maybe Lord of the Rings. Just thinking of how long it would take one to read, tackle in some cases, such a huge text turns many off before they even crack open the first page. As for me, these days I get this feeling when I'm faced with a memoir from the Second World War. Be it about a soldier, civilian, or Holocaust survivor. I know I'm in for a struggle.
Therefore, today I view reading some aspects of history more as a chore rather than an enlightening experience. I know as soon as I pick up a book that this will not be a well written fictional tale which has a clear winner and loser. It won't be a story with a happy ending or a story of human triumph, although, at times it might present us with the victory of the human spirit, as survivors of the Holocaust beat all the odds against them to make it out alive. In the end a story such as this, and others like it, will make me think, it will make me reread sentences, paragraphs, and, at times, whole pages as my brain desperately tries to grapple with what it's just ingested. By the time I come to its conclusion, I know that the dread I felt in the beginning was an exaggeration. Nothing in the world can compare to what the author, Andzia, went through from age 7, until she was liberated at age 12, and I owe it to her and myself to learn from her experiences. Can humanity really be responsible for something as coarse and degrading as the Holocaust? Can human beings really treat each other in such a way? The bottom line is that this is our history, humanity's history, and today, it is our responsibility to those who endured such a tragedy to never forget and to learn from our past so that future generations will not make the same mistakes.
Starting this book the reader is presented with the above questions, and a multitude of others, and I am reminded of what I'm about to delve into As hard as it is for us to come to terms with such ideas it is that much harder for her, someone who faced anti-Semitism on regular basis and lived with death on her doorstep. As I read about her childhood in Sambor, her family and neighbors, I could almost imagine myself living in those same streets. Readers who are familiar with Holocaust and WWII literature should not be surprised at the amount of information the author is able to retain of her years before the war. It seems that survivors have set up a specific reference called 'pre-war' where they can only remember the good times. Yet one can almost feel the tension building as WWII comes closer and closer and is finally thrust upon this peaceful community and its residents. Even before the war, there are instances when Andzia speaks of certain characters from her past; describing their looks, jobs, families, and qualities. Inevitably, the last sentence about them discloses where and how they were killed or simply never heard from again. A select few times the end result is a bit different, Andzia encounters this person or people again, be in Israel or the US, but they are not as they used to be. Broken and depressed by the losses they suffered and what they had to live through.
The first encounter with German officers came in the beginning of September 1939, when a group of German officers asked politely if they could stay overnight. Andzia's mother spoke to them in German and made every effort to see to their needs. They left the next morning thanking her for her hospitality; soon they would disappear with the rest of the German army as the Russians took over the occupation of Sambor. Deportations to various parts of the Soviet Union would follow for some. A young couple decided to poison themselves and their baby rather than be deported. Few could know that those who were deported would have a better chance of survival than those who remained and would endure the future German occupation one year later.
At one point, after the Soviets took over Sambor, to escape deportation to Siberia, Andzia and her family left Sambor for another town where they were not known but, eventually, chose to return to Sambor after the Soviets withdrew and the Germans re-entered Galicia. On the way back they were stopped by a group of German officers and soldiers who wanted to know if her father was a Communist. Her father proceeded to lift up his shirt to show the ritual Tzitzit he always wore underneath, saying that he was a religious Jew and thus could not be an Atheist Communist. The officer, miraculously, motioned for him to move on.
More than once there is reference to the local Ukrainian population who greeted the Germans with great enthusiasm as they re-entered Sambor after declaring war on the Soviet Union. They would remind Jews that their time would soon come to an end by actively helping the Germans to persecute them.
The first German aktion, before the establishment of the ghetto in Sambor, saw Andzia and her family barely manage to hide. When it was over, and they returned to their apartment, they found it almost empty. The locals had helped themselves and striped it practically bare, taking the linens, clothes, and even towels. The next day she "saw a neighbor's child wearing one of my dresses" (pg. 115). Such crude behavior and utter regardlessness for their actions came to symbolize a large portion of locals and their lack of remorse toward their Jewish neighbors and former friends. While during the third aktion, there is a description of how a neighbor was inadvertently shot by a German, while hiding in an attic. The neighbor never made a sound nor did anyone else hiding next to him, they were even able to prevent the blood from seeping through the boards so as not to give away themselves to the Germans standing just below them.
At one point Andzia recounts how she was taken in by an anti-Semitic couple who agreed to keep her 'safe' in exchange for money. They kept her in a very small kitchen cupboard and every once in a while let her out to use a bucket, as a toilet. Otherwise, a dog would stand guard outside the small cupboard whenever the couple would leave the apartment and she was told to stay there no matter what as she could easily be seen through the windows. Eventually, the money ran out and she was returned to the ghetto.
Heart breaking is the memory of orphans as young as 3 years old who had to fend for themselves within the confines of the ghetto in Sambor; one tends to forget that living is at times harder than giving up and dying. As a side note, I found it fascinating to learn that Sambor was a central point for the trains leaving for and from the Eastern Front. The author explains that the town was always filled with soldiers and officers and on a regular basis they would be loaned out to the local SS in helping with surrounding the ghetto during rounds up, at times even helping with the round ups themselves.
After the liquidation of the Sambor ghetto, Andzia spent a full 16 months hidden in a cellar with 25 others, hundreds of rats, and one white cat. They had no light, had to dig a well for water and lived with the constant smell of feces from their toilet pit a few feet away from where they slept. Somehow, the smell turned to the least of their concerns as they progressed on a day to day basis, living their lives as best as circumstances could dictate. A Ukrainian knew about their hiding place and demanded money/goods, on a regular basis, as well as a young pretty Jewish girl to be at his beck and call whenever he came around. A girl had to be "sacrificed" for the good of the group, she endured it until the end. Andzia would regularly see her returning to the cellar crying after spending time with him. The Ukrainian even forced all of them to write letters attesting to how much he had done on their behalf as the Red Army was coming closer and the Germans were retreating toward Sambor. He wound up in Canada, as did many Ukrainian collaborators, and regularly showed off the letters as a testament to how much he had done to save Jews.
Andzia's uncle tried to join the local Polish partisans in their fight against the Germans. But they instead shot and killed him, saying "that they did not want a Jew in their midst" (pg. 186). A man who escaped with the author's uncle related the story to her as he survived based on his non-Semitic looks and fought with the partisans until liberation, when he found the author and her family and told her them about her uncle. This was a regular occurrence with the Polish Home Army and Ukrainian nationalist partisans as well, at times they kept Jews within their ranks but usually they were doctors or useful in other ways (perhaps radio operators, etc).
After the author was liberated, she and her family, as well as a Polish gentile, were robbed at gun point by two Polish Home Army members who "considered themselves at war with the Soviets" (pg. 256). Again, after the war, in liberated Poland, there were numerous pogroms against Jews who had survived the Holocaust, forcing the majority to flee.
We tend to think that after liberation these Holocaust survivors had little to worry about. They were finally free and could live their lives in peace. This, in so many ways, was exactly the opposite of what happened. As shown above, quite a few became victims of those not yet done with their war against the Jews, in one way or another. While others escaped to fight and die defending Israel in its war of independence, the author; she spent years trying to figure out who she was and where she would fit in. As a refugee and a displaced person she was forced to spend time in Germany, around those same people who had aligned themselves with Hitler's Nazi regime as the Holocaust was taking place throughout the European continent. Yet, spending time around them she could not help but think how normal they now appeared, and not like the German monsters she remembered.
For much of the time after the war she was very introverted for the, having few friends and limited contact with those around her. Keeping to herself gave her time to study and pursue a variety of work, first with radios and then to physics.
Eventually, after coming to New York, she would settle in California, her sister in Canada, as her parents remained in New York.
There are quite a few scenes which I had to reread again and again as I could not quite grasp what was being expressed. I could not help reading the lines again and again hoping that I had misread something. I wish I could go into every story and every encounter Andzia experienced but some are better left here unsaid. My words simply could not convey such raw emotion, tenderness, and innocence.