In the mid 1939 there was much talk about a war. The population was preparing for the fighting by covering the windows with newspapers, so no one could see the house lights from outside. You could feel that the war was going to start. The first city that the Germans bombed was our city, Tarnow. A bomb was dropped on the main railway station, it was august 1939. During that time many people were killed. They brought the dead and wounded to our hospital. There was no time to deal with all the casualties. The dead were quickly removed to the basement and we took care of the wounded as best we could. I remember very well the sound of the enemy planes forcing everyone to evacuate to the basement for safety. My fiancé was always with me. One day he was so tired that he sat down and then realized he had just sat down on a dead body.
Nurses and doctor each had their roles. Mine was to be close to the door and see who was coming, in case it was the enemy. One night a gentleman rang the bell. He looked like a German military agent. We immediately notified the security, and it turned out that it was a German spy and they arrested him. Somehow, that same night, he was able to inform his unit about us. The Germans did not drop a bomb on our hospital because they looked for military targets. On the second day, the situation was even worse and confusing, so Dr. Merz invited me along when she went to visit her brother, also a doctor, who had a daughter my age. Her name was Lily. When we came to their house, I could not believe that the wife was ironing and listening to the radio, as if war was not looming in Tarnow. I stayed there a few days but my fiancé was looking for me and when he found me took me with him. A friend in the military told me:” tell your boyfriend to leave the city because tomorrow the Germans will be here”. Tarnow was about to be occupied by German forces. It was not easy for him to leave his family; he still had two unmarried sisters and his mother, even if he was the youngest he was the only man in the house. I organized a group of friends so he would not have to go alone, because even though he was very intelligent and strong, he was gentle.
The next day the Director of the hospital informed that he had a bus to transport children and old people. He told me to leave with them and that I would find my fiancé on the road. We marched for a long time with wheelbarrows with our belongings. I lost count how many days, maybe weeks. I eventually arrived in Lwow, now occupied by the Russians, but I did not find my fiancé there. When we arrived, the Director was able to immediately accommodate the kids in the schools, where they slept on the benches. Three days later I got a job at the largest hospital in Lwow, where they offered me a good position. I still had no news of my fiancé. One day I went out into the street and met with an old friend. He told me that my fiancé decided to return to the part of Poland that was under German occupation because he did not find me and thought we would meet in his family’s house in Tarnow. He ran into our friend and asked him to help find me and to tell me to go back with him. I said no and told him to come to the Russian side. Our friend led him to me. Henryk tried to convince me to leave Lwow and return to German occupied Poland to be with his family, but I refused to leave, I did not trust the Germans. In the end he listened to me, which eventually saved his life. We were married January 6, 1940 in Lwow, to be together. We could not have a Jewish religious marriage ceremony because of the situation. Meanwhile, I rented a room with a Polish family. I walked to work, but my husband did not find a job. It was very hard living there, if you could not get a job.
Some people wanted to return to German occupied Poland. Everyone who signed up to move over the borders to the German occupied territory were eventually taken away and killed. Since we were registered to remain in Russian territory, we knew that we would be moving and packed up. My husband went out to buy something and was stopped. I told the soldiers that they must follow my husband and begged them to let me go to him. After all, I was a young girl, and finally they let me be with him. I do not remember how long our trip took. Maybe two weeks. To eat they gave us a tiny salted fish, but nothing to drink. I had no idea where the train was taking us. When the train stopped to let some people get off, they gave us something to eat.
In the end we got to the Russian tundra, where we split up in small towns situated around the forests. They put us in the barracks. They gave the young married couples a room around a shared dining room. My husband, as all the men, was taken to do heavy forced labor sawing big trees in the harsh cold or hot weather. The women’s job was to pick up the lumber. I was a nurse with good credentials and in this place there were no doctors just local healers. I was sent to work in the sanitary commission. It was very important for me to get this job as only workers had the right to get bread. I also gained respect.
We were young and recently married and I did not care too much about anything. When one is young and you are together with your new husband, the world is beautiful. I even had time to sing. Conditions were challenging, at night there was no light, the bathrooms were outside, and we had to go out to work in the winter and summer. I do not remember how much time we lived there.
One year later, living in the forest, I gave birth to our first baby, Zygmund. It was not the best of times for a new baby. The war, the lack of food and living in the woods – what will happen next? One older couple told me, “When a new baby comes, everything the baby will need will come too…don’t worry”.
It was a very cold winter. I decided that I should deliver the baby in a hospital. Since the distance to the hospital was about 20 miles, I wanted to make the trip two weeks before my delivery date. I walked a very long time with the snow up to my knees and through the cold forest, with my husband, to the town where the hospital was located. The hospital staff told me, “We cannot take you. You are not ready to deliver”. I told them that I was not going home. I sat down on the steps of the hospital and cried. My husband had to go back to work. They eventually found a bed for me and took me in. I was alone without my family in the hospital.
The next day I went into labor, the midwife came to me and told me that I was not yet ready to deliver. However, a few minutes later, my son was born. The doctor just came in to sew me up. There was no anesthesia and it was painful. But I had been through worse, so I did not scream. And who would hear me anyway? My mother? Father? Anybody? More likely — no one. My husband got the news and came to the hospital straight from work. He was so happy to see our new baby boy. He brought me a gift, a huge loaf of bread and a can of pork fat, a great luxury in those times. My husband had to go back to work. After a few days I had a hemorrhage, I was lucky my good friend Faidzia, also a nurse, had sent me medicines and sugar when we left for Russia; this saved my life. I had fevers and infections. My husband would come every time he could. I breast fed my baby.
After a couple of months, my husband took us back with him. From the forest ranger that my husband worked for, I got a terrific gift – 12 new cloth diapers! Despite all of the bad conditions and lack of basic needs, our Zygmund was growing and thriving. He was a happy and chubby baby, who was very healthy until once he contracted pneumonia and soon after whooping cough. When he was two years old, he developed a high fever and stopped talking. We had to take him to the hospital. When we got there, they told me that there was no space for children with infections. A woman doctor saw my son and told me “why did you bring a dead boy to the hospital”? He had diphtheria. The doctor found a vaccine and injected him but told us she thought it was too late. The next day, miraculously, my Zygmund woke up in this hospital bed, sat up and smiled. The doctor had told me that he will never talk again. It did take a long time but eventually he started to talk again. He developed other childhood diseases, but I am sure that my constant care and strength helped him recover in all cases.
Even though in the labor camps there wasn’t much food and the work was very
hard, we were never afraid of death.
Earning an income was difficult. Before the end of the war, my husband was drafted into the Russian army. With a few others, he disserted and went to the local government as a former partisan looking for a job. He got a job in a hospital. He could hide there and was not affraid.
He would send me the money he earned. My husband promised to come and see us whenever he was able. When the money ran out, we did not have enough to buy food. I decided to go to work and have Zygmund live in a local school where he was well fed. I got a job, but I had to walk 12 miles to see my son. I used to watch him from a distance, because I was afraid that he would cry and want to come home with me. It was impossible for me to have him live with me since I could not work and watch him. Money was very tight even with the job. When my food supplies dwindled, I had to sell personal items to make some money. I decided to sell my husband’s last suit. I was scared because to get to the market, I had to cross the frozen Volga River and walk through forests with wolfs. On the way a blind man stopped me and said “I see you are sad but soon you will reunite with your two souls and travel far, you will have four children”. I got a telegram from my husband and went to the post office to have it translated from Russian. It said “I am alive and well and I am waiting for you”.
I proceeded to sell the suit and got some money for milk and food. I took Zygmund from the kindergarten. On the way home, I met an army officer, who was a friend of my husband. His name was Efraim Taitelbaum. My husband had sent him to find us and bring us home to a big surprise. When we got to my home, my husband was waiting for us! He told me that he was going back to Poland, but he was only able to take our son Zygmund with him at the moment. He had found out that only his sister Frania and her family, husband and two children, survived the war and lived in Tarnow. They surely would take care of my son. I agreed to wait until it was time for me to return to Poland.
With the help of our friend Mr. Taitelbaum, my husband was able to bring me home to Tarnow. There I found the only members of my husband’s large family that had survived. His sister Frania, her husband, Monek Mittler and their children Lilith and Sigmund. They had spent the war hiding in between two walls, 80 cm wide, for two and a half years. A brave Polish family risked their life to protect them. We stayed in Tarnów for one week and then went to find work in the town of Katowice until we were able to immigrate to Venezuela. Dr. Benek Nath also survived the war since he had been in Italy and then went to the USA . Just three brothers out of eight survived.
Esther Fuchs de Ghelman, Monek´s cousin, was already in Venezuela and sent us an invitation with papers to emigrate. In 1947 we left Poland and traveled through Paris where we waited 6 months for the ship “Santa Cruz de Tenerife” that would take us to Venezuela from Marselles. After three weeks we eventually arrived in Venezuela. On our boat, there were 550 Jews and almost every family was welcomed on their arrival by someone, except for us. Nobody was waiting for us when we got to the port. My husband got upset. “Who do we belong to?” he asked. I told him we had our son, we were young and could find work to survive by ourselves. We waited until evening. We heard someone yelling our name from down the street. “Nath, Nath”. I thought it was an angel. But it was our old friend Mr. Fuchs who came to take us to Caracas. We were just amazed. It was like a scene from a movie!
Our friend had a room waiting for us and a separate one for our son with pajamas laid out waiting for him. A few days later, my husband got a very good job in a newly opened men’s shirt factory owned by a friend of Mr. Fuchs. We rented a beautiful house in Marieperez neighborhood. I loved our new home. It was like a palace for me.
We had three daughters, Laura, Helena and Silvia who were born in Venezuela.
My husband decided to open his own business manufacturing men’s shirts. Venezuela gave us many opportunities. It became my whole world. I think it is a beautiful country with warm, friendly and honest people. I feel very fortunate that we came to this country. We made a very happy home for our family here. I had the best years of my life here. I thank God that I was able to see my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren grow up happy and healthy.
My only regret is that my husband and son passed away. My husband passed away a few years ago, he was 82. My son passed away too young at age 57. These were the saddest moments in my life.
The message I would like to give my children is that God gave me a chance to survive and enabled me to see their happiness. I feel very blessed as there were not many families who survived and were this fortunate and we should always remember those we have loved and those who have helped us and loved us.
This was written in 2003