Black September 1942
by Victor Breitburg
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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??"
Levittown, New York
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