We Remember The Children AGE HUNDREDS YEARS OLD!

Halina Birenbaum, 3.01.2003

"My Hundreds of Years in the Holocaust"

Moje Lata - Wieki w Shoah

Translated from Polish to English by Josef Holender

Moje Lata - Wieki w Shoah - Polish

My Hundreds of Years in the Holocaust - Hebrew

The Monograph in Hebrew (Word Document)

Halina Birenbaum: Sounds of a Guilty Silence - Selected Poems

Halina Birenbaum

Jak kwiaty na wietrze

Linie po linii rozrzuciłam -
Mieszankę dziwną
Łez i uśmiech
ˇw dalekich
ˇlu tęsknoty
i obrazy kt
ˇre są tylko w pamięci jeszcze
jak kwiaty na wietrze
wiatrem na wszystkie strony

Luty 1985, z tomiku äNawet gdy się śmieję"

Flowers in the wind

Rows by rows I scattered
a strange disorder
of tears and distant smiles
pain and longings
pictures that are still only in my memory -
like flowers in the wind
scattered in the wind
sown in the earth

Translated by Ada Holtzman


Halina Birenbaum:

My Hundreds of Years in the Holocaust

Translated from Polish to English by Josef Holender

I met my freedom with an empty heart after surviving tragedies during the years of the Holocaust. A vast number of orphans and masses of ruins and ashes in post-war Warsaw - nothing around me or inside me. I already had a whole loaf of bread in my hands and could slice as much as I wanted, but I felt hemmed in by the four walls of home and in myself. I didn't want to be likes my mother was before the war, only taking care of the home, cooking and cleaning; I was so much older than she had been, with all my fifteen years! I had travelled a vast distance from my childhood to old age and to death during those years of war and occupation. So many times I had gazed into the eyes of death, petrified in fear, in the tension of a penultimate moment; so many people burned in my sight. How all this can you enter the ordinary everydayness of freedom, while at the same time imprisoned by those pictures and voices? I dreamed that if I survived this hell, I would settle on an uninhabited island.... If I survived, which in my case was very improbable as Hitler's laws condemned the entire whole Jewish nation to the Holocaust, starting with from the old people, the sick and the children.... I was even in the camps illegally as they took only the young and the healthy, and even that depended on how many they needed for slave labour and the rest was sent to the gas chambers. My life and survival turned out to be series of coincidences... Until today.

Halina Birenbaum, nee' Grynsztejn, a poet and a writer

In September 1939 I turn ten and moved up to the third grade in elementary school. I had loving parents, two older brothers, grandparents on my mother's and father's side and a lot of relatives. We were a poor family. Marek, my eleven years older brother, was studying medicine, and was an exceptionally gifted and hard-working student, while Chilek, who was seven years older than me was studying at a craft school. My father was a commercial representative, my mother took care of home and helped earn money by crocheting. That year, on rumours of an approaching war, my mother's parents and sisters came to Warsaw. They thought that in the capital it would easier to survive than in Zelechow. My family on my father's side stayed in Biała Podlaska.

Mother Pola Perl Kijewska Grynsztejn from Zelechow

On the the 1st of September the alarm sirens sound and I didn't go to school anymore. The sky above Warsaw was solid with squadrons of German Messerschmidt aircraft reigning down destruction and dropping fire bombs, fires broke out and there was nothing to extinguish them with. Houses collapsed, burying thousands of people. This hell lasted three weeks. There was nothing to eat, no water... people dragged out canned cucumbers and preserves from burning shops and drew water from the river Wisła - succumbing on the way to bomb shells and shrapnel. Exploding bombs by day and by night, the glow of fires, smell of corpses decaying under the ruins and the smell of burning, the roar of alarm sirens and loudspeaker announcements: "warning, coming, all clear, coming, coming"! ....

On the solemnest Jewish holiday Jom Kippur, the Germans bombed most of the quarter inhabited by the Jews and our street began to burn. It was the night after the twenty-four hour fast and the all-day prayer services. We run out from the burning house, grasping in our hands anything we could carry with us. We sheltered in an acquaintance's cellar. It was very crowded and smelled of mould, human exhalations and indescribable depression. Some people lost their presence of mind from the horror and mumbled incomprehensibly. I observed adults, reading their faces and the agitation of each of them and I matured to face the inconceivable situation of the world collapsing around us.

Until, at last, a silence occurred. A silence of defeat, devastation and mourning. On the streets people with bundles on shoulders. We were also in this wave of those seeking a roof over their head. This was the first time we saw Germans. They marched arrogantly through the ruined streets of Warsaw, closed in for centuries, an undefeatable wall of death. People jostled for bread, German soldiers pulled out Jews from waiting lines and beat them. ... We found a room in the flat of a dentist, Fania Geszychter, who was paralyzed from the shock of the bombing. Her husband, Izydor, also a doctor, had died before the war. She, her two daughters, Bela (24), Alusia (15) and her son Tadek (22), a dental technician, now occupied one room, and four other rooms and a kitchen were rented out. The youngest, Elusia, two years older than me, and Erna, one year younger than me, living with her parents Fajge and Benjamin Zajdman, in an adjacent room, become my friends. We lived together until the "deportation".

Germans ordered Jews older than twelve years to carry white bands with a blue David Star on the right arm, to separate them from other people. They rounded- up Jews, executing on the slightest pretext and forbade them to go by train or tram, to study, to pray in synagogues or gather in large groups. They announced a curfew from seven o'clock and an unconditional ban on being outside their home. During the day crowds filled streets. People sold their clothes, be-clothes and underwear, to be able to buy bread that each day grew more expensive and worse, frozen potatoes, porridge oats, wet wood. Just to survive the day in the hope that war would soon end with a German defeat and everything would return to the normal routine. The horror grew however with each passing day. Illness, hunger. Time after time terrifying shouts were heard from the streets: Germans! - and triumphant trucks roared into then crowded streets, SS-men jumped down, shooting on those running away, waving their hands and shouting "Halt!" stopping men and beating them up on trucks. Entering Jewish homes to pull out the furniture, taking goods from homes and shops, taking out the owners, fathers and sons and shooting them.

Warsaw, Muranowska Street

Rumours of a ghetto for the Jews were confirmed, as our worst nightmare. A tale wall enclosed us at the end of the autumn 1940 separating us from the Aryans. The Germans ordered all Jews to leave their flats within one hour and gather in a small area in the poorest part of Warsaw. They forced Jews to go on foot from other towns and shtetls, killing the weak on the way and the sick in their beds. Hundred of thousands were had no roof over their heads or anything at all! Cramped in impossibly overcrowded schools and other former public buildings, called "Points", they died en masse from hunger, filth, and epidemics but there was not enough space for all the exiles and they lay on thest, in coand on staircases, begging, swelling up from hunger and frostbitten. It was impossible to keep pace with the corpses that had to be removed and they were covered with newspapers, until a cart came to pick them up and throw them into a common grave.

I was part of in this crowd, growing up and learning about life in total devastation. I played with other children, pushing people in the overcrowded streets, beside those corpses covered by newspaper.... Later, the house committee organized us to collect money for beggars and starving neighbours. We fastened paper ribbons on passer-by, to make them offer us a few cents (groszy). Sometimes we would perform at evening parties in the homes of wealthier families, reciting and sing pre-war and Ghetto songs. Of course, only children and youngsters who were not yet starving or debilitated, participated. Our family during this period was not yet starving. Marek worked in Jewish hospital, earning a little at performing medical duties and the Polish owner of a canned-goods factory "Maggi", with whom my father was cooperating in delivering raw materials from Galicia, got beans, brown sugar, and canned food to us in the Ghetto instead of money, as money did not buy so much as prices rose by the hour. The engineer Strojwąs factory was situated on the perimeter of the Ghetto, which make possible this contact from time to time. We mostly sold things we had been given to be able to buy bread, potato and firewood for warming the room.

I even studied under these conditions. Under the supervision and rigorous orders of my older brother I worked during those three years through the material from the third grade of elementary school up to the first grade of grammar-school. Marek also taught me French. Maybe to take a break from this harsh reality, and maybe in the hope of living to see the end of the war and not wishing to be get behind in my education. I read a lot, even poetry, which I very quickly learned by heart. I found this an escape from the prevailing horror and the constant horrifying rumours of German victories at the front, the murders of Jews and the construction of steam or gas chambers for mass extermination in Chełm, Bełżc, - and the most horrible of all, Auschwitz!...I was eleven when I began to write about things happening around us, my inability to cope with this immense terror, the worsening news and the adults' hopeless comments.

Two windows in our room were covered with plywood and light came from the flame from a gas pipe, and later on, a carbide lamp. We slept on the floor, my parents and brothers on two mattresses, and as the youngest (my mother had always taught me to defer to my elders, against which I rebelled) on a spread quilt. When all the Jews have been forced into the Ghetto, acquaintances gave us a couch, a table and four chairs. Again I had to give way as there was no fifth chair. However, I now had a mattress as my brothers slept on the couch. Luckily, our street was already inside the Ghetto and unlike the majority of Jews, we did not have to look for other accommodation. The Germans reduced the size of the Ghetto a few times and people simply stayed on the streets, dying en mass. The dentist's family, too, were also starving, almost from the very beginning as nobody paid rent or took care of their teeth.... Two years passed in the Ghetto. I dreamt that I would wake up one morning and Germans would no longer be in Warsaw and would have disappeared from our lives as suddenly as they had invaded...

At the end of July 1942 wall posters in Polish and in German announced that all Jews would be relocated to work in the East. Only a few would remain In the Ghetto, those needed by the Germans as workers in factories producing uniforms and boots for the German Army and other factories on the Aryan side. Working Jews would receive work permits, which soon turned out to guarantee the right to life, and large bribes were paid for such documents. Panic and despair pervaded the entire Ghetto. The horror was deepened by the news of the suicide of Adam Czerniakow, the chairman of the Jewish Community, who was always obedient to Germans but did not want to sign the order to evacuate the Ghetto, which gave rise to most terrible suspicions. Immediately all food disappeared leaving only words like raids, blockade, evacuation and railway wagons, The loading area (Umschlagplatz) now become our only reality, the only reality of our lives. At first, we knew nothing about Treblinka The loading area was a long, enclosed square in Stawy in front of the school which Chilek had attended until war broke out. Cattle wagons stood there every day, in which the Germans transported those Jews whom they had seized. In the beginning they took away the evacuees from the "Punkt", beggars on the streets, the sick and the disabled. I did not ask any questions or make any remarks and nothing surprised me - everything could be felt in the air and read in people's faces, in the breath of Death and the fear of dying. Even small children understood the need for silence, to bury in thick darkness their own forbidden existence, their breathing and heartbeat so as to avoid being discovered and deported to that mysterious and terrible "East"...

We put on our best clothes and shoes, a little underwear, frocks, sweaters, in case they would catch us and deport us to some horrible camp, so that we might barter our clothes for some food. Mother put a little flour, semolina, sugar cubes and a bottle of oil in her basket and we took farewell of our neighbours. We did not know then that it would be forever. Aunt Fela Moszkowicz, mother's younger sister, lived in an apartment on a different street, on the fifth floor and we thought that it was so high up that they would not come and get us and take us to the loading area... My mother also wanted to be together with her most beloved sister at this time. My uncle, Majorek Moszkowicz, was taken off the train with a group of Jews who were shot dead, although they had permits, and their son, Kuba, who was the same age as Chilek, was deported to work at Starachowice, where he disappeared without a trace. This was before the transports to Treblinka... Only my aunt and her daughter Halina, two years older than me, remained. From this moment on, we kept together.

Pola Perl and her sister in Zelechow

Round-ups began about 8 o'clock in the morning and lasted until the evening. Each day the streets of the Ghetto were blocked and thousand-headed columns of Jews were dragged off to the loading area. They invaded all houses and flats, on every floor, meticulously unearthing all hiding places, all nooks and crannies in cellars and lofts. They broke down the doors with crowbars, smashed all obstacles and, beating and shooting, rushed people to the columns set up in the middle of the street, from where they led them to the wagons under the escort of armed SS-men. Each day fifteen to seventeen thousand Jews, as many as the wagons could hold. These raids constantly intensified and more and more people were taken. Streets emptied, blood stained pavements and roads, and homes, flats and souls lay abandoned. Scattered belongings, letters, photos, feathers flying everywhere from pillows ripped apart during the searches. Locomotive whistles pierced my heart like a knife: there you will go, this is what awaits you, some horrible station, the end of everything! ...

My father got a job in a machine shop thanks to a relative, as we had no money for a bribe. He received a certificate that would also include the wife and child of a "productive" Jew, that is, my mother and me. The manager had been the owner of this shoe factory but it turned out that promising and profitable position did not save him or his wife and three children from death in Treblinka. Nobody could evade the omnipotent verdict of German extermination. Marek stayed at the hospital, which was still functioning, pretending that not everybody wobe deportedand that some selected and superior individuals would be allowed to live. He had a permit (Ausweiss). Chilek was taken to work at the loading area and wore an embroidered number to show that he was productive and should not be deported. He had to remove the bodies of those shot or beaten to death as they were forcibly loaded into the wagons. The horror that showed in his eyes, when he returned from work the first time, took me to a new level of maturity.

I forgot about my endlessly gnawing hunger, the longing for just another spoonful of dumplings, which my mother cooked in the evening over feeble candles in some flat emptied after a deportation; about an additional lump of sugar from her basket, which she divided each few hours in the hide-outs and used as medicine. Even today I do not know, where this small and physically weak woman got the courage and strength to cook those dumplings. The expression on Chilek's face revealed to me the depth of the tragedy, in which nothing that we had been taught or had come down through the ages, mattered anymore and was left far behind us.

To be Continued...
February 12th, 2003


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