The Children Below

by Stanley Ostern, MD

Note:  A version of this article was originally published in the May 2001 issue of The Galitzianer.  Thanks to Gesher Galicia for permission to make it available on this web site.

When Stanley Ostern, MD, was six years old he entered an underground bunker, which he would not leave until two years later.

The bunker was built in Stryj, south of Lvov, during 1940 and 1941 while the Russians were occupying the area. During that time the Russians took Stanley’s father into their Army Medical Corps (where he survived the war).

A house was built on top of the bunker and a Pole named Starko was hired to live in the house in exchange for a monthly payment of gold pieces.

The bunker was stockpiled with flour, barley, kasha and oil in tin cans. The builder of the bunker, a man named Morgenstern, managed to tap into the city gas line; this provided fuel for cooking and some light. Water was obtained by the use of hand pumps. Two vents that extended into the attic served also as conduits for food that was obtained by Mr. Starko

When the Germans occupied Stryj in 1941, thirty five people, including Stanley, his mother, and an aunt and uncle and their son, crowded into the claustrophobic space that had been designed to hold a dozen.. The group included six children under fifteen.  They sealed the bunker in 1941 and did not emerge until 1944, when the Russians drove the Germans out of Stryj.

Stanley describes the experience: “We basically existed. There were no books. Hunger was a great problem since our intake existed mostly of soups and bread. Rats were rampant; they actually ate up any remaining food. The temperature was high because of the gaslights and poor ventilation.

Sanitation was a major problem. “We had cesspools—basically a hole in the ground. Toward the end of our stay in the bunker we ran out of places to dig for more cesspools.”

The psychological problems took their toll. “We had some territorial problems. Some people felt they needed special attention. Others refused to give up their gold coins to pay Mr. Starko. There were quarrels.

Did the children get any education? “My mother tried to teach me arithmetic, etc., but without books it was very difficult. Basically, I had no education when I came to the United States.”

How about prayer? “We were almost discovered once when someone heard noises and reported it to the Nazis. When they pounded on the walls, all of us prayed. Lucky (our prayers were answered) for us and unlucky for the Jews who were found hiding in an adjacent cellar.”

The inhabitants of the bunker survived the war. Stanley lost the rest of his family, including his grandparents, when the Germans rounded them up in the Stryj ghetto and sent them to their deaths in Belzec.

What does Stanley remember when he thinks of those two years? “Hunger, fear, boredom, sweltering heat and foul air. I felt like a trapped rat. But the rats in our bunker were able to escape to the outside. They were living a better life than I had… It is difficult to remember something so horrible, especially when it happened to a child. I have repressed a lot. Periodically, it all comes back. This happened eight years ago when my mother died. I went into a severe depression.”

Plans for a Documentary

Stanley is co-producer of a planned documentary that will allow the child survivors of this experience to tell their own stories, not only those of their chidhood but also their adulthood. Are they healed? What scars have remained? How did they deal with their own children and parents?

Sixty percent of the film will contain interviews of the child survivors, historians and psychologists specializing with problems of the hidden child. In addition, the film will use historical narration, archival stills, documentary, and location footage.

The producers and a small camera crew as well as several of the child survivors will journey to Stryj to find the house where the bunker was located. Contacts have been established in the town. Today there remains only one Jew who was born in Stryj. He calls hinself the "Last of the Mohicans."

Fiscal sponsorship (non profit status) is under The Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles. At the present time funds are being raised.