Story of Survival
Dedicated to her parents
Beryl and Riva Epelbaum
Dedicated to her sister
Dedicated to her Grandmother
They were all murdered in the Treblinka death camp in January 1943
- Ema (Rose), Dov, Rina Gottesman, Charlene Mandelbaum - Toronto 2013
Story as narrated by her over many days to her son Dr. Dov RotenbergPrewar:
The exact date when my mother Ruzia, known as Ema,which means mother in Hebrew, and how she is known in the family, was born in Staszow is vague at best.
Staszow is about 54 kilometers (34 miles) southeast of Kielce, and 120 km (75 mi) northeast of Krakow. In prewar Poland birth records were spotty at best, especially in small towns and villages. She recalls that her mother registered her as a 4 year old at birth. Why? She was told by the family that because her mother didn't have enough breast milk, she had to register her daughter as a 4 year old in order to get powdered milk from the government, which was restricted by the authorities to children 4 years or older. (there is some discrepancy with this...as Abba (my father) was adamant that while he was born in 1916 she was born in 1918 yet she was 16 when he war broke out thus making her birth year 1923) .
Ema's father, Beryl, was was born in Staszow and her mother, Riva, was born in Warsaw. She was the third oldest child with one brother and 3 sisters. Because there was no suitable employment in Staszow her father had to work in Warsaw and commuted to Staszow. He was a merchant who organized the delivery of both dry and solid goods from Warsaw to various merchants in Staszow and was also instrumental in bringing electrical power to Staszow. In time he became very successful financially and was unusually modern both in thoughts and actions. For example he would not wear a traditional Jewish beard or traditional garments. As a prosperous merchant in Staszow, in their house (unlike most other citizens of Staszow) they had newspapers as well as a radio giving the family access to world events at a tumultuous time in history. At the beginning of the war there were approximately 15,000 people living in Staszow. About half of the population was Jewish. Life (in Staszow) was traditionally very segregated. By and large the children of the Jewish and non-Jewish population played and lived apart from each other in different parts of town. The school and education of the two populations were also very segregated from each other. Even within the classroom the Jewish and Christians were segregated to different rows in each classroom. She would go to Hebrew school (called Yavneh) each afternoon for four days every week. The teachers came from other countries mainly Lithuania and the teaching was mainly of a religious nature.
From the age of 14 there was no organized (non religious /secular) high school for Jews. Her parents arranged for private tutoring for her and her younger brother Leonard. Most of the subjects were taught by adults that had finished high school elsewhere, and they were taught such subjects as history and geography. Although there was a “high school” in town, the number of Jewish people allowed to take part was very limited, and generally it was restricted for Christians. The private tutor “high-school curriculum” also included conversational Hebrew. Ema attended school until approximately age 14, and after that joined a Jewish youth organization. The food that the Jewish people ate was always ‘kosher’. There were several butchers in town which supplied the ‘Kosher’ food for the Jewish population. Her parents were observant but not as highly religious as the rest of the Jewish population. Nevertheless the Jewish holidays and traditions such as Sabbath were always observed, and they as well as the rest of the Jews did not work during Sabbath. Her parents were somewhat traditional, for example they would get a non-Jewish person to turn the oven on so that they would not have to do it on the Sabbath. Her father would go to synagogue every Sabbath. The after hour activities both at young age and teenage years were very segregated between the Jewish and Christian people. For example during sporting events, such as soccer games, the teams would be composed of Jewish and Christian teams opposing each other. If the Jewish team won it would frequently end up in a physical fight. The friendships also were very segregated. My mother had some acquaintances in the non-Jewish world but no real friendships. When children reached courting age, that too was very segregated and it was extremely frowned upon for a Jewish person to socialize and court a Christian. In those days it was very common for young people to leave Staszow as soon as they could because there were so little opportunity and social activities in town.
Ema's two older sisters left Staszow at a young age. Sala left for Palestine in 1934 as a member of the youth organization and Jenny the other sister left for Canada in 1928. The two sisters came back from Palestine and Canada to visit Staszow in the summer of 1937. At that time there were ample reports in the newspapers and radio about the increasing evidence of Hitler's rise to power. The sisters stayed to visit for the summer of 1937 and then went back to their respective countries. The talk at home turned to alarm about the future for Jews and there were many conversations about the need to leave Poland but it was a very difficult decision for social, psychological as well as economic reasons. The family procrastinated and planned for too long because of that. The original plan was to give Jenny some money to buy a house in Canada so that eventually if the family was able to leave they would have a place to stay. Nevertheless, the activities of daily living went on and time went by, and gradually the exit options closed before they could act. The war broke out approximately two years after that ... September 1939...she was now 16 years old.
The War Years: Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and that month almost immediately the German troops entered Staszow. When the Germans troops entered Staszow, there was immediate endless shouting and yelling by the German troops directed at the Jewish population. My mother her parents, her brother Leonard (16 years of age) and younger sister Faigel (11 years of age) all ran to a house approximately 3 km away from town owned by the lady who had brought the family milk in the past. They thought that they would be safer in this house because it was out of town and there were no Germans in that area. This lasted for a few days and then the family went back to their original house in Staszow. For several weeks the Germans would on a daily basis pick up young and middle-aged males for work duties in town such as carrying water as well as fixing and building roads. Each morning the German troops would march up and down the streets singing a song about “Catch the Jews take them up to The Red Sea and drown them in the Red Sea.” After a few months there was a dramatic change for the worst. The Germans put out the word that they were looking out for “volunteers” that would go to a work camp. Those people that “volunteered” for this work camp would have a better life. A number of people volunteered and they were taken to a work camp that was approximately 150-200 miles from Staszow and was organized to manufacture ammunition for the German army. The Jews working in that camp were not allowed to return home. Leonard my mother's younger brother (as a 15- year old teenager) was one of the “volunteers” . He was taken away in 1940 and worked in that camp until 1943. In that period of time my mother and her family had no communication with him whatsoever but periodically they would hear from the Polish workers in that same camp that he was still alive. During those years the family would survive by going out to get food from various farmers through the side roads and the alleys that they knew about and thus avoided the German troops that were becoming increasingly hostile. After all available male Jews were taken to these work camps, the Germans made it clear that they were now looking for female “volunteers” to go to other camps. My mother initially volunteered for that and was in fact on a truck to be transported out of town when she looked down and found her parents crying. She didn't feel it possible to leave them alone and got off the truck and stayed with them in town. A very fateful decision, that likely saved her life.
The Germans authorities did not directly give orders to the Jewish community of Staszow. Instead they appointed a Jewish committee (Judenrat) made up of several Jewish community leaders who dealt directly with the Germans and then carried out the orders to the Jewish population. After a short time the Germans announced that there would be a collection of money, gold, fur coats and articles at a given date. They also announced that there would be a number of Jews that would be held as ransom in jail until these goods were collected. The Judenrat would deal with the Jewish population to ensure that the gold, money fur coats etc. were all collected and delivered to the Germans in a timely fashion. One of the people that was held in jail by the Germans was my mother's father. My mother went to the Polish mayor of Staszow and asked whether she could take his place in jail but the Mayor refused. Because enough goods were delivered her father was released the next day as well as other prisoners. So this went on for a few days, with this jailing of Jews followed by subsequent ransom and money exchange until there was no further goods available. Throughout this time the family kept living in their house however, they also took in two refugees one from England and one from Germany, continuing this way of life for many months. Over the course of two years there were two Jewish ghettos (confined and restricted neighbourhoods, guarded by German troops) established in Staszow one large and a smaller one. Until 5 o'clock in the afternoon the Jews were allowed to go out of the ghettos to work and obtain food. However, from 5 o'clock in the afternoon until the next morning they were not allowed to be out of the ghettos or face the possibility of being shot. Several Jews who tried to go out of the ghetto after 5 o'clock were killed by the Germans to prove that they were serious. The activities of daily living were largely confined to daily survival....until 1942. For almost a year there were rumors coming back to Staszow from various sources (Jews as well as Christians) that in the towns and villages surrounding Staszow the Jews were being collected and shipped away. Nobody knew where the Jews were going but they knew that the Jews were not allowed to come back to their towns and they were never seen or heard from again. There was one Jewish woman that worked doing household jobs for the Germans. In her job she overheard the Germans talking and as soon as she finished her job that day she came back to Staszow and informed the Jews that on November 7, 1942 the Germans were planning to collect all the Jews from Staszow and transport them all away.
The night before November 7 1942 many Jews tried to hide. My mother's family hid in various different areas, in hiding places owned by Christian Poles. Her father hid in one house out of town, the grandmother in another, the mother and Ema in another. After one day in hiding the Poles made them leave their various hiding places and the Jewish refugees were forced by circumstance back to Staszow. At that point the town was largely empty of Jews with many empty houses. Night after night the remaining Jews would move location, hiding in one empty house after another trying to hide from the German troops who knew they were back in town. The Germans at that point decided on another tactic. They announced that if the Jews would voluntarily come out of hiding they would be transported to another town where they would be allowed to live more freely. [“Judenstadt”(.Jewish State). Over 100 Jews were transported by wagons and horses to this new town called Sandomierz, including Ema, her parents and Faigel the youngest 11 year old sister .That town was previously emptied of the Jewish inhabitants by the Germans and now the new refugees from Staszow were allowed to go into town under the promise of “freedom”. That episode lasted approximately six weeks. The Jews were not allowed to be free in this town, but they were assigned to certain streets and houses and in each house there were approximately 30 people. There were many Jews in this town from various other towns and communities where the Jews were taken out by the Germans in an attempt to consolidate them together in one place for better “management”. Each morning the Germans would have the Jews lined up outside by shouting loudly ”Juden Raus" ( Jews outside) and they would count all the Jews repeatedly. This would go on day after day for weeks. For a while the Jews had no idea why this daily counting was going on, but then they discovered that the Germans were counting because they wanted to have enough Jews accumulated to justify a train transport out of this town into the death camps. The living conditions in this town were unbearable. For example the single water source was turned on by the Germans (for Jews) for two hours every day. However there were thousands of Jews that would be lined up for water at this tap and they had no containers into which to put water. In two hours it was impossible for all the Jews to have a turn at water collection and many times there would be no water for hundreds of people because the water source would be turned off. On one occasion Ema ran off with some money hidden by her father to buy some bread from a Polish Christian bakery. She bought the bread and was going back to her parents hiding from one house to another when she was the found by the Poles who started to yell at her (cursing her as a dirty Jew) and hit her over the head with a chain. She would not let go of the bread and managed to escape back by running to the house of her parents as well as 11year old sister. This was typical of the daily life in this area. Sometime later she found out that it was possible (by bribing the Germans) that they would allow some Jews to go back "legally" to Staszow in order to work in such activities as tailor shops and machine shops repairing articles for the Germans. My mother suggested to her parents that they needed to escape from this town before there were enough Jews that the trains would start transporting people to the death camps. She suggested that she go back to Staszow and find work for her parents where they could be declared “legal” and she in turn (as an illegal) could then hide at night from the Germans with her parents.
After some discussion, it was agreed that this would be the plan. On January 1, 1943 she left her parents on her way to Staszow by horse and wagon. On the same night she was caught by a Polish guard and thrown into jail as soon as she entered Staszow. She was told by him that she would be shot at 7 A.M. the next day. At 7 A.M. the next day a young German guard came in with a revolver in hand to shoot her. However he looked at her and told her that she was too pretty to shoot and that he would let her go but that if he ever caught her again he would personally execute her on the spot. He instructed the Polish guard to take her to the work area and told my mother never to let the Polish guard get ahead of her or behind her because he would surely shoot her. She eventually got to the work area in Staszow, but her parents were still in Sandomierz not having any idea of her arrest and near death experience. Shortly afterwards there began shooting and grenade explosions from the Germans around Staszow. Mother once again ran off with a friend and hid out of town in the same house where she hid originally when the Germans came into Staszow in September 1939. The following night they decided to try and work their way back to Staszow however it was snowing badly and they had absolutely no sense of direction due to the accumulation of snow in the surrounding fields. My mother saw a group of people walking in a path and she crawled in the snow on all fours to listen in what language they were talking. When she heard that they were talking Yiddish she asked them if she could walk with them and gradually worked her way back to Staszow with a female friend. There she met up with a young woman and attempted to hide with this person in a hiding place supplied by bribery from a Christian Pole. He would only allow one person to hide there and as such they made a pact to separate but meet with each other once a night so that they would not lose track of each other. (In fact after that one night they did not reunite and from that night on my mother and this woman lost contact with each other. By sheer coincidence approximately 25 years later they reconnected for the first time in Toronto).
On January 10, 1943 she heard that the Germans decided there were enough Jews collected together in Sandomierz where her parents and young sister still lived .They collected all the Jews put them on trains and transported them all to the Treblinka death camp.. In that group were Ema's parents and 11 year old sister. The Jews from Sandomierz were immediately killed as soon as they arrived in Treblinka. My mother at this point was in Staszow and never saw her parents or young sister again. At this point at approximately 19 years of age my mother had no parents and no home. She did have some gold that her father sent with her so that she would have some money to use for bribery. She bribed one of the Poles in whose home she was hiding and gave him a $20 American gold piece if he would smuggle a letter to Leonard (her younger brother) who was all this time working in a work camp in another city. In the letter she told Leonard that the parents were gone and where she was hiding .She told him this in a code so that if the letter was found she would not be found. In fact the Polish man was able to smuggle this letter to Leonard along with some biscuits for food. Leonard at this point had just recovered from typhoid fever and when he got the letter he and another young man (they were both about 18 years old) jumped the fence and ran off in the direction of Staszow. The Germans tried to shoot them but missed. The brother and sister reunited in Staszow. They had not seen each other for about two years. Although the original plan was for both of them to hide in the house of this Polish man, he in fact told them that they both had to leave the house. He was afraid that if the Germans found Jews hiding in his house everybody including himself and his family would be shot. It was at this point that the decision was made to hide in the Polish forest. The man gave them a bottle of frozen water and a loaf of bread to start them on their way and off they went into the forest.
The Forest: It was late autumn of 1943, snow was beginning to fall and the weather was rapidly deteriorating. The forest edge was about 20 km from town. When they finally got to the forest there was no organization whatsoever just a large number of small individuals and groups. The groups would identify each other by certain code whistles and an appropriate response code whistle. In all there were approximately 1000 Jews in various parts of the forest. There was at this point no organization, just family members and associated friends and refugees. It was late in the afternoon when Leonard heard a man whistling a Jewish tune. Leonard looked for this man and immediately recognized him as a man that he knew from before. In fact, this man was a very good friend of Leonard's of approximately the same age. The man took Leonard and Ema deeper into the forest where there was a man that had managed to combine a group of 10 people and build a small very rudimentary shelter. One of the people in this small group was familiar with the forest and he was most helpful. Soon after they went into the forest, it became evident (by meeting other people) that there were in fact many small groups scattered throughout the forest each group simply trying to survive. There was little interaction between all these groups because each one was doing their best to simply hide, and to leave no trace of their hiding spots. In the beginning while they still had a little bit of money the younger people including Leonard would go into the villages and buy some food from the local bakers and merchants. Once the money ran out and they could no longer do this, they would forage at night and steal food from the fields and orchards.
They survived like this until winter came. The severe Polish winter was approaching at this time the man that was familiar with the forest suggested that they move their location deeper into the forest where there was a better chance of survival. As such they all went several miles deeper into the forest and started to dig a bunker. They stole some shovels and other utensils, and then started to clear the trees as well as various large and smaller rocks. Once cleared, they started to dig into the earth. The bunker that they dug was approximately 8×12 feet in the ground, but so low that nobody could stand erect. They took the trees that were removed and placed them over the entrance as well as inside so that they could lie down on trunks and branches rather than bare ground. They also replanted some trees all around the entrance so that the entrance could not be observed and it would look like trees growing in a normal way. Food in limited quantities was obtained by stealing and foraging at night. Drinking water was a much bigger problem. Although there was water in the form of snow everywhere they would not dare use it because if they walked in the snow it would leave footprints and they could be traced back to the cave by the German troops as well as Polish collaborators that were continuously looking for them. The small group in this bunker was composed of 14 people with ages between 40 and 5 years of age. The little 5 year old was never allowed to talk above a whisper and for a long time after the war he continued to talk in a whisper. As such, a young eight-year-old boy was given the task of digging for water inside the bunker/cave. He would dig using a small spoon until water was identified and then use a small cup that would be shared by the people in the cave. The water was in fact more mud than water but that's all they had, and miraculously none of them developed water contamination diseases. There was a large number of similar small groups that had done more or less the same digging into the forest, approximately 1000 people in total. Occasionally, a group would be betrayed by one of the local Poles who would inform the German troops. The Germans looked for the hidden bunker, led by the Polish informants and proceeded to shoot everyone in the bunker. In order to maintain some element of hygiene they built rudimentary holes as latrines and would go outside in order to urinate or defecate. On one occasion while Ema was outside she heard a German voice saying in a shout “they are here, they are here”. She quickly ran and grabbed Leonard and a young boy with her.
The Germans shot at Leonard, missing him but the other boy dropped a jumper As he ran back to get the jumper the Germans shot at Leonard again, missing him but shot this boy and killed him instantly. Lice was a big problem in the confinement of the bunker, but they found an ingenious way to eliminate the lice. They would lay the lice infested article of clothes on the ground beside ant colonies, the ants would stream outside attack the lice and thus disinfect the clothes. There were some examples of absolute heroism. There were two very young men (teenagers) who were very familiar with the forest. They left the relative safety of the bunker to try and find some food, and after going about 10 to 15 miles came back with some potatoes and bread that they shared with the survivors. They then went back into the forest to reunite with their families but they were in fact both killed by Poles who knew them and identified them as Jews. They managed to to obtain a small battery operated radio and overheard that the Germans decided once and for all to attack and thus kill off the hidden Jews by massing a great force. They split off into much smaller groups to try and minimize the concentration of people. The Germans attacked the forest with artillery and with bombing from the air. Miraculously, by dispersing, despite all this firepower there were very few casualties. Gradually though, more of these small groups were discovered either by the Germans or the Polish informants and killed. Eventually the decision was made to leave the bunker because it became obvious that they were going to be discovered and killed. Of the approximately 1000 Jews hiding in the forest at the beginning of this stage there were now about 40 survivors, the rest were killed by Germans and Poles after being discovered. They sneaked away finding shelter in various barns and haylofts owned by local villagers. On one occasion, the group was found by Poles who tried to obtain the location of the survivors' hiding spots by beating (using a heavy belt) a young child and Ema. The child ran away to an adjoining farm and told the story to a few sympathetic Polish farmers. Miraculously this group of farmers organized and went back to the original location and intervened by fighting with the other Poles and thus allowed Ema, Leonard and the young boy all to run away. For a long time Ema kept the belt with which she was beaten as a memento of the occasion.
On the night of August 1, 1944 they heard a tremendous amount of military heavy machine noises coming their way along with nearby explosions. They sneaked out of the hiding spots to see if they were Germans or Russian troops and one of them reported that he heard Russian language. As such they crept along the fields along the Russian army that was at this point moving into Germany and gradually worked their way back to the town of Staszow. On August 2, 1944 they were liberated and back in Staszow (their home town) but once in the town they all considered this to be their worst day of the war. Why? Because they realized back in their home town but they had no family, no homes, no memories and no sense of belonging. As such amazingly they decided to go back into the forest and into the bunker that had become their “new home”. They stayed in the bunker for several weeks. Eventually they were met by a group of Russian soldiers including one officer who turned out to be Jewish as well and befriended them. They were treated very well by these Russians and were fed and clothed generously. As a group they decided that they would make their way to Russia and became part of the Russian military convoy. Nevertheless, the Russians got drunk on the way and had accidents on the road. Several of the soldiers as well as survivors ended up in various clinics and the group of soldiers and survivors separated. It was at this point that they made their first acquaintance with some members of the Jewish Brigade from Palestine who subsequently organized the survivors' travels back through various European countries eventually ending up in the harbor of Taronto (Italy) where they boarded a small fishing boat whose crew was bribed to take everyone to the Mediterranean Sea. There were 30 males and 5 females on the boat. The boat itself was a small broken down fishing boat, with no cabin or shelter from the elements. They were misled by the organizers as well as the crew about the boat out of fear that the survivors would not get on the fishing boat if they knew the truth. They were told was that this small fishing boat was simply going to shuttle the people to a large ship just outside the harbor, but in fact this little fishing boat was the only one they would be on for the entire journey. They stayed for three weeks on the deck of this boat across the Mediterranean Sea. The boat engine broke down off shore and the final leg of the journey was completed using oars. This boat turned out to be the first illegal boat carrying Holocaust survivors from Europe to Palestine. There were Palestinian Jews waiting on shore for this boat and they came out walking through the waves and carried the survivors to shore on their backs. This was August 1945, and the start of the next chapter in life, away from Nazis and Europe.
Thanks to Dr Dov Rotenberg for the kind donation of his mothers account which has been reproduced in full
Photograph – Kindly Supplied by the Rotenberg Family
© Dr Dov Rotenberg and Chris Webb - Holocaust Historical Society 2015