Black September 1942

Biographical Episodes

by Victor Breitburg

Victor, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz, is one of "The Boys," a group of several hundred young camp survivors sent to England in 1945 and 1946. Their experiences have been immortalized in Martin Gilbert's acclaimed book, "The Boys: Triumph over Adversity," published in 1996. Victor arrived in England with the Windermere group and lived in the Cardross Hostel in Scotland. He emigrated to the United States in the late forties and has maintained contact with "The Boys". He is actively engaged in Holocaust education and is held in high esteem by the educational authorities in New Jersey. '45 Aid Society Web Site

Rybna 17, this was our Ghetto address from April 1941 until August 15, 1944, when the existence of the Ghetto came to an end. The building had three floors and a reservoir on the fourth floor. Most of tenants living there, were from before the war. The only dwelling there left for us was a tiny step-down under the stairs; one room, if you can call it an apartment. It was a far cry from what we were used to living in previously. It was all right to live for a short time like this, because the war was supposed to last only six months, Germany would be defeated, and we will return to our own apartment. As far as I know, there are only two survivors, Morris Pinchewski and myself, from some twenty families. No matter how tired we were, when we came from work, or any free time we had, we played football and other games. I remember the young German Jewish girl who lived next to us. She had a little pug nose and spoke with a slight lisp.

And now 1997, I am back, standing in the middle of the same yard and pointing at the site where the water well is in the center of the yard. I am telling my guide how we hid our children. As I am talking, my mind was going back to the beginning of September, 1942. Yes, we saved the seventeen children for the time being, only later to have them perish in the gas chamber.

This was the hardest and darkest time in the three years of being incarcerated in the Ghetto. Life in the Ghetto didn't improve. Continuously, people disappeared and we never heard of them again. Tuberculosis and starvation took their toll. My position at work continuously improved, and even got better every once in a while because of a special packet of food. The extra food helped to subsidize our family's meager rations. Also, working in a woodworking factory, I was able to organize some sawdust for heating to keep our small room warm during the winter. It was the end of August, and rumors, good and bad, started to circulate throughout the Ghetto. The good rumors were that the Germans are having a hard time on the Russian front. The bad rumors were that more people will be resettled from the Ghetto; we heard those rumors before. September, German SS and the Jewish police surrounded the hospital and forcibly removed all the patients. It did not matter if you were just there for a check-up or seriously ill. Anyone who resisted was shot on the spot. They were herded like cattle into wagons and transported to outside the Ghetto. A short time later the trucks returned only to pick up more victims (we didn't know that this was the beginning of the killing machines through carbon monoxide).

The SS went through the list of patients and anyone who was missing, had to present themselves to the deportation center, or another member of their family would be taken in their place.

As if this was not enough, on September 5th, Chaim Rumkowski our Chairman announced that, by the order of the authorities, about 25,000 Jews under the age of ten and over the age of 65 must be resettled outside of the Ghetto. I was at the place where Chaim Rumkowski made that fateful speech. For the first time I saw tears in the chairman's eyes; he truly loved children. Rumkowski pleaded with us to turn the children and elders over to the Germans for the sake of saving the Ghetto. They are safe, and nothing is going to happen to them. Panic set in the Ghetto. Who is going to be next? Where are they going to send our children and the elders was on everyone's mind. My mother was appointed to be the superintendent of the building, because she had a small child and couldn't leave her to go to work. This position my father got for my mother, through someone he knew before the war. Normally, before my father and I went to work, we took care of the building. My father, a former military man, started to look for a safe hiding place. Knowing the building well, we had several places in mind. Are we looking for a place for ourselves, or are we also going to try to save the rest of the children from our building? We went through several places, which were suitable for us, but not for more than ten to fifteen children. On the fourth floor there was a water tank, if we let the water out most probably we could hide a dozen children and their mothers. My father agreed on this plan. Be he felt that we have seventeen children and we also must protect the mothers of those children.

My father looked sick himself. I suggested that he should also look for a safe place to hide himself.

I never gave a thought about myself. I was fifteen years old. I had a special card from the commissar that I was essential for the production at the shop where I was working.

Another place we thought of was looking in the cellar, checking whether we could build an extra wall to hide everyone. We looked every place for other alternatives. In the cellar there was a pumping station to supply water to the reservoir. There was a motor with a belt leading to the center of the yard, which turned a large wheel and was connected to the water pump, which pumped water to the reservoir tank. The opening where the belt was, was approximately eighteen inches by twenty inches. Many times the belt leading to the tunnel broke. I used to repair it, but I never explored that tunnel. My father removed the belt, I crawled into the tunnel, and immediately I knew that this place might be a safe haven for concealing those children. The tunnel was wide and long enough to accommodate all the children and the mothers. There was enough room in the tunnel to stand or sit down, and enough oxygen.

Next, we removed the motor, pushed the belt back into the tunnel in order to protect everyone. When the last person would be in the tunnel then we will cover the opening with garbage.

Knowing how sanitized the Germans are they will never come near to this place. We got some blankets and sugar water, and other provisions. We felt we were ready.

On September 5th everyone was told to confine in their apartment unless told otherwise, and wait until our building is ordered to come down to the yard for their selection. My father urged me to go to the hiding place too, but I was so sure of myself that my papers would save me, and I also wanted to be close to my father.

For the first time I saw my father kissing my mother, and he took around my sister and my brother and held them close to him for a while. I never saw my father display any emotion towards us before. I looked at him as I never looked before, I was fifteen now, and worked hard, and he knew it. I carried more than my share to keep this family alive. I was afraid not for myself, but for my father. We nearly lost him twice. My mother begged him to hide, but without success. My sister Sarah was a beautiful child, and in April she just became three years old. We never had a problem with her. I watched her when she took her step. No matter how tired I was, or moody, when she started to giggle, I forgot about everything; I helped to bring up this child. My father was incarcerated with about five other people for smuggling food into the Ghetto. In 1941 my father was arrested by the Gestapo and convicted for nine months. I don't know why they had to have a trial and to send him out of the Ghetto. How come they didn't shoot him like they did anyone caught smuggling? Somewhere, there must have been a payoff. Through those nine months, I had to do everything possible to help out. Many days I worked for sixteen hours and brought home bags of sawdust with wood hidden inside. Sometimes the bag was heavier than I was. We invited many children to come into our room so they can warm themselves up. The winter was severe and when you went to sleep by night and woke up in the morning, the water was frozen. I was fourteen years old then and I was needed. I cannot omit my brother. I was his hero. His name was Favel, in Polish we used to call him Felek. When he reached the age of seven I started to teach him how to read and write Polish. He was smarter than I was, and also eager to learn.

Because my mother was the caretaker of this house, and my father was tall with blond hair and blue eyes he would be the right person to be the spokesperson for the building.

We all were waiting for the German officer to come and inspect us. I rubbed my cheeks to look nice and red, and inside of my shoes I put in some paper to make me look taller. I was scared, but I knew I also had to put up a front for the officer when he came. Since eight o'clock all the children and their mothers were in the tunnel. Everybody had their documents, and now, we all prayed for their safety. I was worried about the children, that they shouldn't start to cry. In the tunnel we had children from all ages, from one year to eleven. Any mishap and we would lose the children, the mothers, and who knows what would have been the retribution for all of us.

Sometime early, before noon, an SS officer and about ten Jewish policemen were surrounding our building. The officer was young, tall, good looking, and looked at us with contempt. Slowly he looked around, he must have heard our hearts beating, and with a loud, booming command asked, "Where are the children und die alter fafluchten Juden?" At that point my father approached the officer, with his hat in his hand, and looking straight at the officer said, "Sir, you are the second officer who came to inspect us today, and whoever was eligible was already taken away." For a while there was a silence. Once again he began to swear, "You better not lie to me." I was fighting with myself not to be obvious as to how scared I was. If somebody says the wrong thing, my father would have been doomed. I noticed even the Jewish policemen were nervous; I also had a feeling that somebody is going to pay a price. He called over a Jewish policeman and told him not to let anybody leave. He took two soldiers with him who were waiting outside in the street and proceeded to look for hidden people. We all felt that we were in trouble. We looked at each other and you could see the fear on our faces. The officer was gone for about ten minutes. To us it was an eternity. The officer and the two soldiers came down, without finding anybody, and you could see the anger on his face. He turned, abruptly pointing his baton at the stairs leading down to the cellar, "What is over there?" Once again my father replied that we stored the garbage there, and the garbage was not picked up for the last two weeks. Once again the officer called over some Jewish policemen and told them to search the cellar. He was walking and looking at us, like he was selecting his next victims. We were afraid if the Jewish policemen would suspect that anyone was there, they would report to the SS officer. They were just as scared for their lives as we were, and they had to protect their own families, because their families were unaffected by the selection. He did not trust the Jewish police and started to walk down into the cellar himself. It did not take too long before we heard him swearing what kind of pigs we are. It worked, it was too dirty for him to venture in the cellar. They were safe. The SS officer told the Jewish policemen to line us up for his selection. Several of my friends were selected to go to the gate where there were Jewish policemen waiting to escort them to the wagon, which was waiting for them outside our building. I was trembling from fear knowing I had misjudged. The proclamation said that there will be resettlement of children up to ten years and elder people of sixty-five and over. I am fifteen years and I have a special pass, but my friends were the same age as I was. Finally my turn came, I stood straight, and I held my card. He took my pass and with a sadistic smile he threw the pass on the ground and pointed for me to go to the gate; I tried to protest, but at the same time I saw him reaching for his revolver. I was not going to wait any longer and as fast as I could I ran over to the policeman who took me to the wagon. But, as I was trying to get away from him I heard him laughing. I guess I was his entertainment for the day. I could not believe that happened to me, and at the same time I started to look around. I was not going to leave the Ghetto to be resettled without my family. More people came on our wagon and the others were filling up rapidly. I made a decision I am going to jump when the wagon will turn the corner. There was one German soldier in the third wagon behind us with one Jewish policeman on each wagon guarding us. I felt the Jewish policeman had his hands full with other people on the wagon and he will not leave the wagon to chase me. It happened exactly as I was hoping it would. I ran through the field and circled back towards our house. I waited until it was safe to return.

I felt proud of myself that I actually outwitted them. I will never trust Chaim Rumkowski or the Germans again. I walked into our apartment and I saw my mother and my two siblings crying. My father came over and held me tight against him. I never remember him taking me around before. Besides, I felt uncomfortable and besides, I didn't know what the whole fuss was about. I knew that they were not going to get me; how naïve I was.

From this day I grew up. From a young adolescent boy who dreamt of football, skating and horseback riding, "They were only dreams." Maybe one day I will be free again but from today on I have to be a man. Yes, I grew up. Weeks passed since September 5th, we all mourned the people who were resettled. We all went back to work in the Ghetto. And life went on. We all were thankful that we weren't caught. And when Yom Kippur came along, we prayed that maybe next year we will be free. The Germans never got their 25,000 people and had to settle for only 15,000 victims. My aunt and many other mothers, dressed their children in their best. Made sure that they had all the documents, kissed their children and turned them over to the German soldier for safe-keeping. Because the Ghetto was not a conducive place to bring children up.

My father died on June 18, 1943 at the age of 41. My cousin and I are the only survivors of fifty-four people of our immediate family.

None of the children survived; nor their mothers. August 1944, once again we went through another resettlement for our own good, except this time the destination was Auschwitz. My mother, Felek and Sarah met their maker in the gas chamber of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It's 57 years later, and as I am writing, I am hovering above all those people.
And I am looking at my father, with hat in his hand, he was once a very proud man.
I am looking at little Sarah, who wanted to live and just maybe.......
And Felek, who just became 12-years-old. What his future could have been?
And my mother, how proud would she have been seeing my wife and me with our children and grandchildren sitting at our Thanksgiving table.
Yes, I am looking at myself and I see a 15-year-old boy and also I see in him a certain determination, he is scared now, but he is not going to be defeated because has to survive.
But one day I will meet my maker, and in silence I will ask, "Why??"

Victor Breitburg
Levittown, New York

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