A Memoir
by Paula Altura-Tencer

        I am Altura from Brody.

        My father, Abraham, ran a tailor shop, employing several people.  We lived in our house, with a beautiful garden full of fine-quality fruits and flowers.  The house was located on Jurowska Street--a corner house near the small Ukrainian church, also near the movie theatre "Palace."  It was a six-family house.  We had five tenants.

        I was one of five children.  My parents, my oldest sister Laura, my youngest sister Rosa, and my twin brother Zygmund did not survive.  Only I and my older brother Max survived.

        We had a happy childhood.  Having a house and garden provided facilities for us children to be close to home and play with neighbours' children instead of venturing out into other neighbourhoods.  We had the love and guidance of our parents that made us feel that life was good.

        In 1941 when the Germans attacked Russia, while the bombing and artillery issued, we were in the cellar for protection.  The German planes threw incendiary bombs all over the Jewish section.  Our house, including the movie theatre, the spirit warehouse, our Ukrainian neighbours' houses, all burned out except the small church in the middle, which proves that the Germans had a precise strategic plan of our town provided by the Ukrainians, who collaborated with the Germans.

        We were surrounded by flames, and at the same time German planes flying low were machine-gunning people who were trapped, running in all directions.  We ran into the church.  My father ran upstairs and tried to save some things from the house, throwing out clothes and bedding from the window.  After a few days in the Church, sleeping in a corner on the floor, we felt we were intruders as Jews.  But under the circumstances, our Ukrainian neighbours were quiet.  They were in good spirits because they were looking forward to the German occupation.  They hoped that, collaborating with the Germans, they would regain this part of Poland called Ukraine.

        We were lucky.  When our house collapsed, the top apartment landed on the ceiling of the downstairs apartment.  After a few days, the bricks cooled off and the basement apartment was saved.  We moved into the downstairs, thanking God that we had a place to live.  My father built makeshift beds, and we lived there until the Ghetto.

        I was in the Ghetto with my family, except my two brothers, who worked and were housed by the Germans under watch.  They repaired roads and highways and were kept alive as long as they needed them as laborers.

        My father wanted somebody to survive to be able to tell what was done to us.  Through some contact, my father was able to obtain Christian false documents for me and my sister Laura.  He gave away most of the valuable things that he saved from the fire as a price for the papers, leaving my parents without any material means of obtaining some food traded in by the peasants, who used to come by the barbed wire of the Ghetto.  He gave everything so that some of his children should survive.  I was able to get out of the Ghetto and leave town as a Christian but not my sister Laura.  She was older, more aware of our tragedy, and could not leave my parents, who would, after our departure, wonder if we were recognized and shot.  They would live in constant anxiety.  She said she did not wish to live in such an ugly world.  I left Brody and lost my identity. This is a whole saga which I have written about in my manuscript to be given to the Museum of Jewish History.

        After the liquidation of Brody, the young men who were outside the Ghetto were to be eliminated.  My brothers ran away and hid in the bombed-out ruins.

        At night they would take turns in going out and foraging for some food--such as stealing vegetables from Christian gardens.  When winter came, it was impossible.  They were hiding out in the cellar of the bombed-out movie theatre.  They clung to each other for warmth.  Their legs were swollen from hunger, full of sores.  Unshaven, not knowing what day it was, not knowing how the war was going, without hope and out of desperation they took turns at night knocking at Christian homes begging for bread.  These were Christians that knew our family.  Most of the time they threw them a piece of bread, some water.  Whenever one of my brothers went out for food, the other was dying a thousand deaths wondering if he was caught.  In the pitched darkness he whispered my brother's name, but most of the time it was just the wind.  They embraced and cried whenever he came back.  Sometimes he came back empty handed because the dogs were barking.

        One day as they were lying half dead in a daze they heard noises.  Some Christian kids were playing on the rubble.  They discovered the cellar, looked in, and saw my brothers.  They got frightened and ran out screaming, Jews are here!  Jews are here!  My brothers, realizing that they were discovered, knew they must leave this place immediately.  They ran out, even though they could hardly walk, but had to.

        In no time two Germans appeared and started to chase them.  My twin brother was behind Max and he got shot.  Max turned around and wanted to run towards him, but Zigs waved to him as he was falling to the ground, waved unselfishly telling him to run--not to stop.  Max ran and got lost in the ruins.  At night, as it was bitter cold, he went back to the theatre cellar.  He cried bitterly for my brother.  He missed the warmth of his body.  His life was more tragic than before.

        In the meantime, the Russian front was coming closer.  He could hear artillery from the distance.  The entire Christian population was to evacuate.  When there was no more a civilian population in town, he came upon an idea.  On the main street Leszniowska there was a larger Ukrainian church.  On top of the bell tower, there is a platform that supports the bells.  There is a narrow ladder that the bell ringer climbs up to ring the bell calling people to prayers.

        Max climbed up, tore away a board from the platform, and crawled in.  From the height, he had a view of the main street and some distance away.  He noticed a German military kitchen.  The cook threw out garbage, potato peels.  He saw abandoned dogs, cats, rats come to feed.  At night he crawled down and dug in the garbage.  He reached a point where he was delirious and ready to die.  Suddenly he realized that the shooting had stopped.  The German military kitchen was gone.  He thought that it was a mirage.  He saw on the far end of the street Leszniowska Ulico cavalry on horses.  As the sound came closer he was sure of what he saw.  He climbed down with the last of his strength and hid behind the altar.  It was logical that the first military shoot first and then ask questions.  Russians with their rifles ran into the church searching for Germans.  They found him.  The rifle aiming at him, he cried out, "Don't shoot.  I am a Jew."  They gave him brown bread.  He gulped it down voraciously.  He could have died from it.  He got diarrhea.  He legs were swollen, full of sores.  He had to cut open the boots because the legs were as heavy as telephone poles.

        That was the beginning of the liberation.  We found each other a year after the war through the Red Cross.  We came together to America in 1946.  We found some cousins of my mother, who were kind to us.

                                                                Written on 23 February 1994
                                                                Copyright © 1994 Paula Tencer

Copyright © 1999 M S Rosenfeld