Generations After


Ruth Wheeler - back to Members page

Among the throngs standing mesmerized and cheering as Hitler spoke stood a jewish teenager from Poland. She told me she just had to go see him (twice)!. How this strange state of affairs came to be is essentially the story of my mother's survival. Two years earlier, my mother Hilda, her sister Henia, brother Joey, father and mother, Samuel and RACHELA found themselves in the Rzeszow Ghetto, very much in danger but at least still together. Earlier still when the Wermacht occupied Stryzvow, my mother's hometown, they immediately took over my grandfather's house for their command post. This was a rural area near Krakow and he had a large business exporting dairy products to western europe, mostly to England. Most of the small town worked for my grandfather and he had a rather large piece of property very centrally located and the house suited the germans just fine. My family was relegated to two small rooms off the kitchen. The Feit (mom's maiden name) women cooked for the officers and my grandfather was made to shine their boots but these were minor indignities compared to what was to come. These were the German army regulars, the Wermacht, after all, not the SS but where there was regular army, the SS was soon to follow and that they did.

It was at this point that the Feits were told they would have to leave everything behind but one small suitcase each and go to the Rzeszow ghetto. There they shared one small room with two other families. All able-bodied people were given work assignments. My grandfather had been made a member of the Judenrat back in Strzvow and remained a member in the ghetto. A thankless, actually horrible position to be put in, but it gave him access to information that not everybody got to see. For a short time my family remained together., crowded in a small room with two other families, but safe and together. They went to their work assignments and hoped for the best, though by now they were expecting the worst. Sure enough, soon the selections started. Shortly after this, a notice came that all women with children under the age of 13 were d to report to the town plaza with their children. My mother's brother Joey was not yet thirteen. My grandmother had no other choice but to go and the next morning the whole family went to the plaza. My grandfather, mother and aunt were told to go to their work assignments and Rachela and Joseph of course had to stay. People sometimes ask why the victims did not resist more, fight back, etc. It should be kept in mind that by this time everyone in the family was extremely weakened by the cruel conditions they were forced to cope with. Hard labor, very little food, and let us not forget the SS everywhere with guns and dogs and ready to kill for any reason, sometimes just because. The selections by now had begun and when Samuel came home that night from work he told my mother that her name was on "the list". He had purchased for her a baptismal certificate that belonged to a girl a couple of years older than named Barbara Czapczynska who had recently died. He gave it to mom, telling her the bad news and said essentially "you do not look jewish, take these papers and do what you can with them" because it is your only chance. They (the germans) already had taken his wife and son and he hoped beyond all hope that he could save his daughter, Hilda. My mother's sister Henia was younger, very pretty, but with dark hair and eyes and most likely could not have fooled the Germans with these papers. In any case, this is what he did, and the very next day on the way back from her day's work breaking up stones for a railroad track, they were as usual being marched back to the ghetto four abreast with SS guards and dogs watching them. The area where she lived was one of rolling hills and forest and she acted like she missed her step and somehow rolled down a rather steep ravine. How this was possible with the SS and dogs, my mother has not a clue and attributes it to a miracle but I believe the fact that it was dusk and that she was literally running for her life had a lot to do with it. She hit the ground scratched up, dirty and clothing torn but otherwise ok. Now what? She washed as best she could in a stream and thought for bit and decided to go to the house of a school friend, a Catholic Pole. My mother's family was very assimilated and the children all attended the public schools so she did have many non-Jewish friends and this friend happened to live near Rzeszow. When her friend greeted her at the door she became very frightened because my mom was bloodied up and because it was known one could get killed for helping a Jew. Nevertheless, she told her to come in and the friend's mom agreed to let her stay the night, rest and clean up but definitely be gone in the morning. The friend gave her a change of clothes and also suggested that perhaps mom should go to Krakow where not so many people would be likely to recognize her, which she did, but before she left, she stopped at the town plaza to see if she could find her mother and brother. Trying to make herself as invisible as possible, hiding behind buildings, she caught a glimpse of them being marched toward the railroad station with all of the other mothers with young children. How terrible it must have been to see them and yet not be able to let them know she was there! She would never see them again.

Once In Krakow she slept in parks for a few nights trying to figure out her next move. Germans, of course, were everywhere She heard that they were signing up volunteers to work in Germany and as it happened my mother spoke fluent German. Knowing she had no chance if she stayed in Krakow she reasoned that with her papers she could apply for a job and she did just that. She went to the German high command in Krakow and had an interview with an officer who asked her why she wanted to go to Germany. She answered "because there would be more to eat there and it would be in her best interest". He asked her if she could type and of course she said yes. She ended up working for a large electric company that was of course part of the war effort located in Berlin, AEG. All the volunteers lived in barracks and mom tells me there were so many countries represented that it was like the UN. She managed to perform small acts of sabotage while working at the company as they were involved in weapon making. For a while she would receive an occasional letter from her sister, Henia, smuggled somehow out of the ghetto. One day Henia wrote that "daddy had to go away on business" and my mom knew this could mean only one thing, he had been taken. The letters stopped after that and Henia's fate remains somewhat unclear. A friend she worked with was in the Czech underground and sometimes she was able to pass information on to him and she often tore up important papers instead of sending them. Unfortunately, he was caught and shot but she somehow made it through until the liberation which brings me to my favorite story (not least because it is a happy one but also interesting). Berlin was being bombed now constantly and everyone knew the end was near. She told me she was so young and foolish she would sometimes leave the underground bomb shelter to watch and cheer on the bombers overhead never considering the danger she was putting herself in. One night she was in the basement with her coworkers and they heard a big commotion and Russian being spoken outside. As the russians were about to discover them, her German coworkers and others in that basement fashioned a white flag from a rag and literally pushed her outside, stating "they will not harm you since you are polish". She greeted the Russian soldier and told him she was a Polish Jew. He looked at her in total disbelief and said "but there are no jews here in Berlin, impossible". He paused for a moment, then turned to speak to another man. This other soldier approached my mother himself, looked her up and down and said "if you are jewish recite the "Shema". She did and the soldier, being a jew himself, believed her. She was bloated from hunger by this time and quite ill and the Russians gave her good medical care for the next several weeks until she got better. It was at this time that she met a dashing Russian major named Misha and almost married him but that is a whole different story and there are many.

I should mention that before she escaped to Berlin she went through plenty of hell and was shot once during a selection. My mother speaks about her experiences at local schools through the Sarasota Manatee speakers bureau and this is one story she will not tell. I can certainly understand why, but all the more reason to tell it here on our website. During one selection, her mother and 13 year old brother Joey were selected. She started screaming and crying that she wanted to go with them and just would not be calmed down by anyone. An SS shot her. Suffice to say that I would not have been born if he had hit his mark, but he got her in the upper thigh and it was luckily a superficial wound. In the confusion that followed, her mother and brother were able to scramble back from the doomed group and live for a short while more though they were soon taken in another selection.

People sometimes ask why the victims did not resist more, fight back more...I hope our stories and holocaust education in general helps answer that question.

 

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