Autobiographical Notes of Nathan Diener

Submitted by John Diener

The first part of this biography was dictated by Nathan to his wife Reba several weeks before he passed away in September 1995. At that time, he was not well enough to complete the dictation, so the second part was written by his family members from the bits and pieces that Nathan spoke about over the years.

I was born on November 5th, 1925 in Grzymalów, Galicia, Poland. My parents names were Yechiel and Frieda. My paternal grandparents were Avraham and Katya Diener, and my maternal grandparents were Yosef Zvi and Gittel Diener. While it is assumed that both sides of my family were distantly related, we do not know how they are connected. We moved to Butsyki, which is located 1.2 miles south of Grzymalów, and lived with my grandparents Avraham and Katya.

At the age of 3, I started Cheder in Grzymalów to learn Hebrew, Yiddish, and religion. When I was 6 years old, I began public school. Classes were held from 8:00 am until 4:00 pm, after which I went to Hebrew school until 6:00 o’clock.

At home I helped with the chores, which included feeding cattle, taking care of the pasture, cleaning the stables, etc

Our home consisted of three rooms; my grandparents slept in one room; my family slept in another room, and the kitchen was shared by all. There was no running water or toilets in the house. My mother baked her own bread, etc. Very little was bought, almost everything was made at home. There was very little money, but the family was happy and very close.

I had two younger sisters. Gittel (Gusti) was born in 1927, and Nechamka was born two years later in 1929.

My father said that I should learn a trade, so I used to go to help my uncle who had a metal work shop. My parents had brothers and sisters who lived nearby with their families.

My mother had one sister who lived in Vienna, and my mother lived with her for some time during World War I. During this time, my mother was part of the Vienna choir. She had a beautiful singing voice.

When World War II broke out in 1939, our part of the country was taken over by Russia, and things were more or less normal. In May of 1941, the Germans came, and trouble began immediately. A Jewish family in the village (mother, father, and son) was killed right a way. With the cooperation of the Ukrainians, a pogrom was started, and people were taken from their homes, beaten and killed. Our family was protected at this time by the villagers.

For a few months, things were quiet, although the Germans made us pay heavy taxes. Then, we were taken from our farm to town. Men and young boys were taken to work on a farm, and some were taken to camps. The women were moved to Skalat, located about 7 miles NNW of Grzymalów, where a ghetto had been established. In the fall of 1942, my mother and my sisters were taken by the Gestapo from the Skalat ghetto,and put on a train. My mother jumped from the train, after telling my sisters to follow her. The Germans shot at my mother, but my two sisters were two young and too scared to jump. They were never seen again. My mother returned to the farm where my father and I were working, but was broken physically and emotionally.

From the farm, the three of us were taken to the Skalat ghetto. Father and I were put in a camp, and worked in a quarry. Slowly the people in the ghetto were taken away, and sent by train to their deaths.

In early spring in 1943, many of the remaining 850 – 900 people who remained in the ghetto were given shovels, and taken to a spot about 2 kms from the quarry, and made to dig their own graves. They were forced to undress and one by one were shot by the Germans. The next day in the camp, we were made to go through the clothing of the people who had been murdered to search for gold, money, etc. I recognized my mother’s clothing. I also found my first cousin’s clothing, which used to be mine. From that camp, we were taken to the larger camp at Kamionka.

The rest of this account was written by Nathan’s wife Reba and son John, and is a summary of what Nathan had told the family over the years. The description of life in Kamionka in quotation marks below is from Sam Halpern’s book “Darkness and Hope”, as wel isl as some of the reporting of the conditions at the camp.

“There were no mattresses on the wooden planks, no straw (as later I heard people had at Auschwitz and other camps), and certainly no blankets. ……… Hundreds of people were crammed into each of the barracks, and they slept on the planks, the floors, anywhere they could find space. We each had less than two feet to lie in, and if one person wanted to turn over, everyone on either side of him on the long planks had to turn over as well.

After being awakened at 5:30 in the morning, we were given two minutes to dress. If someone was not ready, he was badly beaten. Only after everyone in the barracks was ready were we allowed to stand in line for a cup of ersatz coffee, which was really dirty warm water. They also gave us a piece of bread (whose flour had been mixed with sawdust), often so hard and moldy that it could hardly be eaten. Since this was our entire food ration for the day, some people saved the bead for "lunch" while others, unable to abide the gnawing hunger in their stomachs, chewed on it immediately. I tried to save mine for later in the day, knowing that as hungry as I was upon waking, I would become much more so as the day wore on and the hours of physical labor took their toll on my body's limited resources.

After this meager meal, thousands of camp inmates were made to stand outside in the yard, in straight lines, from six until eight in the morning. It did not matter if the brilliant summer sun was shining, or the deathly winds of winter were blowing; we had to stand still for two hours. Rain, snow, withering heat. It was the second phase of torture routinely worked into every day.”

The camp was lice-infested, and many of the inmates became ill with typhus, which was spread by the lice. The days were spent performing grueling work for the Nazis, which included road building and stone work. Beatings were commonplace, and many people died from malnutrition and abuse from the Germans. My father Yechiel became ill with typhus at this point, and was hospitalized in the camp.

Someone in the camp managed to find or steal a pair of shears. A plan was proposed to cut a hole in the fence that would allow us to escape. Most of the people in the camp, though, had already given up, and had accepted the fact that it was their destiny to die in Kamionka. Many of them had already lost their family members, and were weak both physically and mentally. Even my father did not really have it in him to try to escape, but agreed to participate, most likely only because I was there with him. My mother and sisters were already dead, and my father was weak with his disease.

According to Sam Halpern’s book about three hundred escaped the camp through the hole in the fence, and only a few dozen of those actually survived the war. All of those who chose not to participate in the escape perished the same night, as the Germans decided to burn the camp and its inmates to destroy any evidence of its existence.

After the escape, we hid in the fields and did whatever we could to survive. Food was very scarce, and we went without on many occasions. We didn’t even have proper shoes, and tied rags to our feet. Survival was difficult, as there was no one to turn to for help. Many Jews were betrayed by the locals for very small rewards. On one occasion, while hiding in a wheat or corn field, the Nazis came with their large dogs. While we were crouched down hiding in the tall growth, the dogs came within inches of us. By some miracle, we were not discovered.

Eventually, my father became too ill with the typhus to continue, and died. I buried him in a brickyard, and it was my desire to return after the war to give him a proper burial. I was never able to do this.

After my father passed away, I joined the partisans for a little while, and eventually joined the Polish-Russian Air Force. I became an air gunner. We flew over Germany a few times close to the end of the war, and I dropped some bombs. At one point I was in Germany with a fellow soldier, and we came to a house where a German woman and child were living. My friend gave me his gun, and told me that I should kill these people for what their people had done to me and my family, but I couldn’t do it.

When the war ended, we received orders to report back to Russia. I was with my unit waiting to change trains. While on the platform, some people that I knew from Grzymalów spotted me, and told me that I was crazy to be heading east to Russia. The woman told me that there was no future for me there, and she then ripped the shirt of my uniform. She convinced me to throw away the shirt, and to change directions and head west. Instead of going east to Russia, I was now heading the other way. I ended up in Salzburg, Austria, for a while, and then on to Italy, where I went to live in a camp for displaced persons. Because I had deserted the air force, I never went back to Poland to find my father’s remains, because I thought that I might be arrested.

While life in the DP camp near Milan was by no means luxurious, things were much better than during the war. After all, we were all survivors, and had lived through such terrible times. I connected with the Bricha movement, which helped bring survivors to Austria and Italy, and eventually helped get people to Palestine. I made lots of friends in the camp. My best friend was Yaakov Cantor, who eventually went to Palestine. Another friend was Socher Kravetz, who also made it to Canada, and lived in Montreal. I kept in touch with Yaakov for a few years, and then never heard from him again. He was a bit of a troublemaker. Perhaps he got himself in trouble in Israel. I never found out. I did always keep in contact with the Kravetz’s and visited them regularly in Montreal.

While in the camp, I place my name on a survivor’s list. A woman named Sarah Plissner, who was connected to the Rymalower (Grzymalów) Young Men’s Benevolent Society in New York City, saw my name on a published list, and showed it to my mother’s sister Goldie who lived in New York. Goldie had come to America in 1912, several years after three of her brothers had arrived in the US. Goldie was married and had three children. Her oldest child, Freida, started writing to me, and started working on bringing me to the US. There were very tight quotas on at the time, and they were not able to bring me to New York. Fortunately, a first cousin of Goldie’s and my mother’s, another Goldie (Goldie Diener Silbert), was living in Ottawa, Canada. The New York Goldie and the Ottawa Goldie worked together to bring me to Canada, and I arrived in 1948 to start my new life. I arrived in Halifax on a Friday through the now famous Pier 21, caught a train westward, and on Monday was at work in Ottawa.

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