Our 1974 European Tour

by Lili Susser


Lili Susser (Cukier), survivor of the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz, is the author of a self published book about her experiences during the Holocaust. Click the images for a larger view.

Photo of Lili's mother and uncle, ca. 1910-1912
Lili's mother, Chaja Malka Rubinsztajn, circa 1910-1912, with Chaja's brother, Theodor (Tevie) Rubinsztajn. Lili's mother was born in 1891 in Plock, a town north of Lodz. This is the only photo Lili has of her family.

 

NOTE: The following is Chapter I of "Our 1974 European Tour," a short story by Lili Susser. Chapters II, III and IV deal with Krakow, Venice and Paris.

Ever since being forced from my home by the Germans during the war in 1940, my desire was to go back some day. I don’t know why, but I had this need to see the place that was my home once again, perhaps to relive the past, the “good and carefree” years when my family was still intact. I fantasized for years about going there, knocking on the door to our apartment, and asking the present tenant to please let me in for just a look to recover some of those memories.

Travel to Poland before 1974 was next to impossible because of the cold war, and Poland was an “Iron Curtain” country. Later when travel restriction eased, it was on a small scale, on a guided tour only and to a select few cities, namely those with tourist attractions. This did not interest me since Lodz, my home, was not on their itinerary.

In 1974 restrictions eased again and this time individual traveling was permitted to former citizens of Poland. We applied and were granted entry visas. It was going to be our first trip to Europe since our arrival in the USA in 1949. After all these years of dreaming about returning to Poland, I never believed it would come true and now the time was upon us.

Our main destination was Germany, particularly Georgensgmund, where we had lived after having been liberated from the concentration camps and where our son Herman was born. We had friends there with whom we had stayed in touch all this time and we decided to take them up on their frequent invitations to come for a visit. It had been nearly 25 years since we had left there and I was curious to see the place and the many friends. Mary was graduating college and decided to get a bank loan so she could accompany us on the trip before she started work. Once she got a job she may not have been able to get time off. I longed to go to Poland just to see what it was like. I missed my home and my friends. Although I knew they were all gone, something within me would not let me come to terms with it. For years I had thought up ways of approaching the people who must live in our apartment now, to ask them to let me in for a look. That’s all I wanted, just a look. I don’t know why the longing was so intense, and I certainly got enough flack from people I dared mention it to. “Why do you want to go back there, didn’t you get enough of it?” But, what I was looking for was what I had before the war. There was a time, after all, when I had a happy home, a childhood. Perhaps I was looking to find myself, my youth. Secretly I hoped everything to be the way it was when I left; that what I experienced was just a bad nightmare from which I would wake up once there. Maybe this is what I needed to face. Could I possibly find any of my non-Jewish friends? Perhaps I wanted to confront the ghosts that were haunting me every night since liberation. I didn’t have answers to any of the questions. I just had this nagging need to go back and I didn’t know why. It had been 34 years since I last saw my home and now that we were going to Germany, it would be a good opportunity to make a side trip there. Julius was very much against going to Poland! He was apprehensive, and with good reasons: the television was portraying the Iron Curtain countries as treacherous villains. The movies and news articles were emphasizing the dangers one faced traveling in those countries. For instance, hotel rooms being “bugged,” the KGB were following and spying on tourists, people were being arrested and imprisoned for no reason, authorities were manufacturing evidence and having false charges brought against you, and generally, visitors were being mistreated and perhaps even being detained. Eventually, I was able to convince Julius that we could get a visa for 10 days, and if we felt uncomfortable or threatened in any way we could head back to Germany. We told our kids that if they didn’t hear from us in a couple of weeks, “call a senator, congressman, the President, whoever it takes, to let them know we were being held “against our will”. In order to get our visas, we were to send $17.00 per person, in American money, for each day of stay requested, to the Polish consulate in exchange for vouchers redeemable for Polish zlotys upon arrival in Poland. The money was not otherwise refundable. The kids came to see us off at the Denver airport and we were on our way.

We arrived in Georgensgmund the following day and were guests of our old friends and former landlords, the Riegelbauers. We were treated royally, but in all this excitement I developed a terrific headache and had to go to bed to cure it. After a short nap, I felt somewhat better. Friends started coming by to see us. We had a lot to catch up on. Then, we went for a walk to see the town. The changes were enormous. Like in the United States, new buildings had sprung up, making some of the old places unrecognizable to me. The people, however, recognized us and called to us from windows. Some invited us for refreshments and would not let us leave until we had some. As we walked in our old neighborhood, I looked in store windows. The neighborhood had changed. There was now a new shoe store where before there were only houses. As I checked out the goods in the window, I heard someone holler from across the street, “Almighty God this can’t be anyone else but the Sussers!” I turned to see a young woman in the front of the house. At first I did not recognize her, but I recognized the house she was in front of as the Schilling house. “You must be Gretel?” I asked. She was just a child when we left and now she was a young married woman with children.

After a couple days of rest, we went to Poland on the Polish airline, LOT. It was a short, pleasant flight to Warsaw, the Capitol. We got off the plane with mixed emotions—some excitement and some apprehension. For one thing, this used to be my home and I missed certain aspects of it. This is where I grew up, went to school, made friends. It was a carefree time. Then the storm of war came and turned everything upside down. Here is where I learned what starvation, cold, hunger, death, fear and extreme brutality were. Apprehension of the unknown dimmed, at times, the excitement of having arrived at the place I so often visited in my dreams. Julius headed for the money exchange and Mary and I waited with the luggage. We had only two suitcases and little cash or traveler’s checks, having left most of it in Germany, just to be on the safe side. While Julius was gone, a man approached, offering us a private cab fare to our destination. I told him I was not sure what this might be, as we had not discussed it before hand. We intended to go to Lodz, my hometown, and Krakow, Julius’ home, but had not set priorities. We just expected to take a train to whichever came first. "Well!" he said, "I’ll take you wherever you decide." When Julius returned, we decided. Since Lodz was closer, we would go there first. I asked the stranger what he would charge to take us there. His fee was $100.00 in American money. While I had no sense of monetary value in Poland, I knew that I was not going to pay $100.00 for approximately 120 kilometers. I decided to make some inquiries. I walked up to a couple of men who had come on the same plane from Frankfurt. They were Polish, but lived in Florida, and visited their mother in Poland every year. I asked them what would be a reasonable offer. They thought $20.00 should be sufficient and I took the offer to the stranger. No, he could not accept it because it was a long drive and he would have to come back "empty." We decided we did not mind public transportation and were just about to board the airport shuttle when the stranger walked up to us and whispered, "OK, I’ll take the $20.00." "Well," I said, "you are a little late because our luggage is in the bus already." "I know," he said, "I already spoke to the driver and he knows I’m going to follow him into the blocks (the residential area). He’s to drop you off there and I’ll pick you up." Since Polish is my native language, I had no problem with the conversation, but rules of the country and motives of its citizens were rather hard to understand. Many things came to mind, but at a slow pace and not until a new situation presented itself. At the time, we had no idea what the "blocks" were. How did the stranger know we were Americans? (We found out later by the shoes and luggage.) Who was he and what were his motives? Was he a member of the KGB baiting us to do something illegal? There was no time for questions, only a "yes" or "no" and I said yes, not knowing what I said yes to.

A few streets into a residential area, the bus stopped and the driver announced, "This is where you get off." My heart sank! What are they planning on doing to us? I thought. But, by the time we were climbing from the bus, the driver was moving our luggage into the stranger’s car. He had obviously followed us as he said he would. We got in the cab, which did not have a taxi sign, and placed ourselves at the mercy of the driver. The first words the driver uttered to us were, "Do you have any dollars to exchange?" Again a fearful moment. Was he trying to catch us at committing something unlawful? The literature from the consulate warned us against deals of this sort as illegal and severely punishable. "No," we said, "we already made the exchange at the airport just as required by law." "Well," said the stranger, "I could offer you three times the legal exchange. For instance, you probably got 33.00 zloty per dollar and I’ll offer you a hundred." Our fear increased. We stood our ground—we did not intend to do anything illegal. Now, we found ourselves going through a forested area. It was raining and there was hardly any traffic. The stranger put a folded newspaper between the seats in the front and announced, "Now I get paid. Just put the money in the paper." I can not describe the fear I felt at that moment. What would stop him from taking our money forcibly and driving off, leaving us stranded in the forest? What if he wanted the money bad enough? What would keep him from harming us, taking what he wanted and leaving us to be found dead? My brave husband said, "No, you’ll get it when we arrive at the hotel." "What hotel are you going to?" The driver asked. "We don’t know any hotels in Lodz. Can’t you recommend something?" "No," he answered, "I have only been there once." "What do you mean you have been there only once? Don’t you drive there regularly?" I inquired. "No, I am not allowed to leave Warsaw. This is why I don’t have my sign up. My license permits me to drive in Warsaw only," he replied. The only Hotel in Lodz I knew was the Grand Hotel, which was really as grand as I remembered it, but that was ages ago and it was old already then. Would it have withstood the war—the Soviet occupation? "Yes, the Grand is still there," he said. "Let’s go there then."

As we were leaving Warsaw, I remembered a message my family had received from the Red Cross in 1939, just before we were sent to the ghetto. The words are still engraved in my memory. They told us that my brother, Herman, had been killed in a battle in the defense of the capitol and was buried in a mass grave on the estate, Czerwonka, "under" Warsaw. I had always wanted to find this estate and wondered, if this may not be the opportunity I had been waiting for—if perhaps this might be near by. I asked the driver, "Are you a Warsaw native?" "What do you mean by native?" "Have you lived here all your life?" "No." "Are you familiar with the area?" "What area?" "The area around Warsaw. There was supposed to have been a heavy battle during the war in defense of Warsaw, in which my brother was killed. Do you know where this took place?" "No, I am from the east and have lived here only a short time. Here is a map. See if you find something familiar." He handed me a map of the Warsaw region. There in the center, in big letters, the word Warszawa and nothing else close by. Further down, I noticed the lone name of a city, "Sochaczew." I didn’t understand why this should make an impression on me since it was not the name of a town I recalled, but my heart was racing. There was something familiar about it, I didn’t know what. No other city on the map had this effect on me. I returned the map and mumbled, "The name Sochaczew strikes a note, but I don’t know why." "Well, we are in Sochaczew now. I’ll ask around," announced the driver. "Just ask for the Estate Czerwonka, there is supposed to be a mass grave," I responded. At the market square, the driver parked the cab and went up to another cab driver for information. "Yes," he said, "There is this estate about a block from here." We drove to the estate and found it overgrown with weeds the height of a human being. It was about 6:00 p.m., raining, and a long way from Lodz, but the driver pressed on. He was not giving up on the mission of finding the graves. He located the caretaker, who informed us that, indeed, there had been mass graves here holding the remains of soldiers, but they were exhumed a couple of years earlier by the communist regime and transferred to the local cemetery. In spite of Julius’ objections, we went to the cemetery, a short distance away, and found a large number of military graves. They were marked by the usual stone cross with a little plaque identifying the dead soldier when the name was available. Otherwise, they were marked "His Holy Memory [Soldier’s Name]", or, "His Holy Memory, Unknown Soldier", or simply "Soldiers," if they held several bodies. Part of my mission was now completed. I was happy I finally found my brothers burial site, although not his grave. Now, too, we were relieved to know that the cab driver was decent. He was also extremely helpful—far beyond the call of duty. How many cab drivers would have gone to this much trouble to help some Americans look for a grave? We decided to comply with his wishes and pay for his fare in advance and exchange a larger amount of money with him. It benefited both of us. The rest of the drive was uneventful.

Soon, we arrived at the Grand Hotel. It did not even closely resemble the splendor I remembered. Before I had time to slide out of the cab our suitcases were on the sidewalk and the cab was gone. None of us knew what happened or why. We were suddenly on the sidewalk like dropped from the sky. It was still raining and the bellhop, in uniform and white gloves, came to get our luggage. We followed him inside and I recognized, immediately, the old Otis elevator across the entrance. Obviously, it had never been replaced from the time the hotel was built. This was like a freight elevator you would see in a warehouse, with the iron grating that clanked and squealed when in motion. We walked up to the desk to ask for a room. The clerk asked, "Do you want a room or a suite?" (Apparently Americans were able to afford the best.) When she said "suite," I visualized one of those you see on TV with all the comforts. "That’ll be fine, we’ll take the suite," I responded. "May I have your passports?" We handed the clerk our passports. "You’ll get them back tomorrow," she said, blandly. "Tomorrow!" I retorted, a little shocked. "And what do we do for today if we want to go outside?" "What do you need the passports for? You just go where you want." What if we are stopped? We have no other identification." "Who do you expect to stop you?" "Well… the police." "Just show them the hotel registration and you’ll be fine." Reluctantly, we left the desk and went to our "suite." We had to take the creaky elevator—which gave me the creeps—to the second floor. The suite had two sets of heavy doors, like double windows, one in front of the other. There was a key lock on each door and a chain for safety. A warning was posted on the inside of the door to keep it locked at all times. We had two large-sized rooms looking out the front. One room had two comfortable beds, the other a couch and a table and chairs in the center. The bathroom must never have had a coat of paint since it was built and the stool’s plumbing was old and rusty. The water tank, with the old-fashioned pull chain, hung from the wall near the ceiling. The first time we used the stool, it plugged up and it took a whole day to have it cleared. The toilet paper resembled crepe paper, only it was a dirty gray and much coarser—more like sandpaper. But we were fortunate: the natives had to share a communal bathroom down the hall.

I was anxious to go outside and see what was left of my memories. First, we stopped at the hotel’s restaurant for a bite to eat. Like the old times, the piano player played an old romantic song from long, long ago, bringing back a flood of memories and giving me goose bumps. At least here, at the hotel, nothing seemed to have changed except for being badly run down. We went outside and walked the street. This was the street where I had lived before the war—we were just a few blocks from my home. This is where I walked in my dreams all those years. It held a lot of memories. To my surprise, the street and the houses had not changed at all, and even some of the businesses looked the same. Here was the shoe store, "Renoma." I remember this was where my mother tried to talk me out of buying a pair of shoes that were too small for me. I insisted they fit because the clerk pointed out to my mother it was salamander leather. That is what sold them to me. Never mind I could not wear them, after all. Buildings in this part of the world housed apartments, businesses, and factories alike. Here was the house where I used to come to check out books from a private library. Here was another that housed a blanket factory where my brother held his first job. Here, time stood still. It was very emotional for me. It was getting dark so we returned to the hotel. Now, Julius brought up a thought. What if the money we exchanged with the cab driver was counterfeit? What if we were to be asked how come we have more than we exchanged at the Airport? What if? What if? Julius decided he would take a few bank notes and try to exchange them with the desk clerk so we could compare them with the other bills. The excuse he used was that they gave him too many small bills at the airport and they did not fit in his wallet. When he returned we compared the bills and they looked genuine.

Next morning we set out to see the house on Piotrkowska St. 116 where I lived before being deported to the Ghetto. The stores in the front of the building looked the same as the day I left 35 years earlier with few exceptions. The lingerie store was still there in the same place. Inside the courtyard, I was shocked to find the air raid shelter just the way I left it, the rocks piled in front of the entrance never touched by time. It gave me an eerie feeling. The whole house was in great neglect. Over the years that I was gone, the house had not shown any improvements or even basic upkeep. The only difference was that the whole rear section of the house where I used to live, and where a neighbor had his stocking factory, was torn down—gone! At the time, I didn’t think of knocking on a neighbor’s apartment for a look inside. The apartment would have been much the same as ours. I was too nervous and tense. The house next door, which formed a complex with ours, also looked the same as I remembered it. All the trade shops looked just like I had left them, up to the smallest detail, including the school of higher learning, which I used to be able to see from our apartment windows. Next, we went to the house I lived in before I entered school. It also has not changed; the little grocery store in front looked just the way it did when I lived there, as if I never left. In spite of dreaming and preparing, all those years, for the eventuality of seeing my house again—how I’d knock on the door of the apartment and ask to be permitted in for a glance—when I was in front of the house, my courage abandoned me. The park across the street looked, to me, exactly the way I remembered it, including the "Buckeye alley" where I used to play so often. Only the fence that used to surround it was no longer there. The communists believed fences should not keep people out of places that were "theirs"—the peoples. Even the market square across the street was as before, except no stalls, no sellers or buyers—empty. This was in contrast to the market I remembered, which was teeming with people and goods, from fresh produce and flowers to live fowl. A square without a market. As a matter of fact there was nothing to buy in the stores now. If anything became available one could tell by the long lines. The houses were badly in need of repair and the sidewalks were full of chuckholes, making walking difficult. I stopped at a store to buy a couple of infants’ shirts to bring back just for fun. The style dated back to pre war times. No one in the US would want to use one of these on their baby. We spent the whole day walking, comparing sites to what I remembered. It was very confusing as names of some streets had changed and some houses had been torn down, turning what were once courtyards into streets or a little neighborhood parks.

The next day I wanted to see the Ghetto area. Mary was not feeling well and chose to stay in bed. We decided to get a cab. This was not as easy as imagined. We had to go to a taxi stop and wait in line. There were a few people ahead of us. As we waited, a couple of men spotted our movie camera and struck up a conversation. My husband made the fatal mistake of wearing the camera around his neck—something I warned him against. I wished to keep it in a bag, concealed, so we could avoid publicizing we were foreigners, especially in a country where even bare necessities are unavailable. As I expected, the camera did arouse a lot of curiosity. "What kind of camera is it? Where are you from?" they asked. We spoke good Polish, but were not dressed as Poles. "How long were you gone from Poland? 35 years?" One man took my hand and kissed it as a sign of courtesy. To have been gone so long and speak the language so well was amazing to him and deserving of respect. The other man was so drunk he could barely stand on his feet. Several cabs pulled up to pick up the waiting fares. The sober stranger offered us his cab. We declined. The other man was not as easy to shake. He was determined to show us Lodz. No matter what, we could not get rid of him or his overbearing courtesy. Just when we thought we had convinced him to leave us alone, he opened the cab door for us and as I was about to sit down he pushed his way in before we could drive off telling the driver where to go. We were flabbergasted, but afraid to "rock the boat." First, he took us to the newly built theater, which was very impressive. He ushered us in and convinced the guard to let us look inside the theater where a meeting of communist party members was taking place. I was uncomfortable, but there was no way out. I did not want to tell him I was anxious to see the Ghetto area and I doubt he would have listened. He was our guide and was obligated to show us places of interest to him and therefore to us. Next, he drove us to Radogoszcz, a suburb of Lodz, to show us the remnants of a factory where the Germans had gathered about 1000 Poles, sprayed the building with gasoline, and set it afire, killing all but a few. A survivor, who had a badly scarred face, told us he had survived by hiding in a water tank. He also led us to a monument for 10,000 children on the site of a former children’s camp. The monument was of a big heart with a hole through it, symbolizing a mother’s heart. Now our host insisted we go to his house where his wife would fix us a dinner of traditional pierogis, and bigos, and he would treat us to vodka and other nonsense, too ridiculous to mention. The situation was getting scarier by the minute. I was trying to convince him that our daughter was sick and we needed to look in on her. He wanted to go with us to the hotel, call an ambulance, and have her treated properly in a hospital. "It is socialized medicine, you know, free to everybody," he told us. I was out of breath and excuses, so I whispered to Julius to take him to the bar in the hotel and buy him enough drinks to knock him out while I went upstairs to the room with some hot tea for Mary. It finally worked and a short while later Julius came to the room alone.

We took a cab, alone this time, to the Ghetto area, but there I found nothing familiar. A lot of houses, including the one I had lived in, were torn down. Sometimes the apartments on one whole side of the street were torn down, as were those behind them, thus making one wide street out of two narrow ones. Here, I saw a lot of new housing, too. The decrepit little houses of the ghetto were being replaced by apartment buildings, several stories high. The waiting time for an apartment was 10 years! This is why newlyweds lived with their parents for years. We drove around a little longer, then headed for the hotel. My mission was accomplished. Having seen Lodz, we were now going to Julius’ hometown of Krakow.

Lili Susser (Cukier)
Pueblo, Colorado
E-mail: susserl@mindspring.com

 

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