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NEWS

For the first time I'm re-posting a blog, and the reason is news-driven.

This post from 2016 is about 2 Melbourne sisters, Celina Widawski and Ruth Scheuer, who survived World War Two by "passing" as non-Jews in the country of their birth, Poland. 

They managed due to their mother's resourcefulness, her high-quality false papers and her fluent German language skills. This eye-witness account to Polish anti-Semitism is relevant in light of new Polish legislation which will make it illegal to describe Poles as being complicit with the Nazis during World War Two. The punishment is 3 years jail. 

This post is not an accusation, it is simply an account by 2 women who experienced the War by living amongst Poles - and survived to tell us about it. They are in a minority, of course. Before World War 2, Poland had Europe's largest Jewish population -- 3.5 million people. After the War, less than 10 per cent remained alive. The sisters are in an even smaller category - they were children during the War, and are now in their 80s.

It is worth listening to them. 

Their story includes acts of great kindness from a handful of brave people - as well as acts of betrayal, from friends as well as strangers. 

  Polish police officer checks Jewish man's documents, Krakow Ghetto, 1941. (Polish National Archive)

Polish police officer checks Jewish man's documents, Krakow Ghetto, 1941. (Polish National Archive)

HISTORY

It is also worth reading the work of Polish-Canadian historian Jan Grabowski, an expert in this area. His 2013 book, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland, makes difficult reading, even if you are not Polish.  Naturally, many Poles see themselves as victims of the Nazis, whose attack on Poland began World War Two and who occupied their country for the duration of the War.  But Grabowski argues that when it comes to the murder of Jews, these victims can be further sub-divided into - bystanders, rescuers and collaborators.

Grabowski says there were some of each of these, otherwise the Nazis could not have exterminated Europe's largest Jewish population. See this report for Grabowski's research, including Nazi documents which show it was their policy to co-opt local police forces and also Polish citizens in order to carry out the Final Solution.

Polish nationalists don't accept these facts.

As the son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother,  brought up in Communist Poland, Grabowski knows this history is complex. For example, he says there were more rescurers in Poland than anywhere else in Europe. Still, Grabowski is being hounded by Polish nationalists for writing this book - see this report from Canada's CBC.

Jan Grabowski.jpg

Sister act

Celina Widawski and Ruth Scheuer both live – and cook! - not far from each other in Melbourne, Australia. They are matriarchs of large families,  both grandmothers, Celina a great-grandmother. Ruth is the bubblier of the two. Perhaps she would always have been the sunnier sister, but she’s also four years younger, and was a blonde child, not at all Jewish looking, which made life easier for her during the War than it was for dark-haired, dark-eyed Celina. 

  Ruth Scheuer with her grand-daughter Nika carrying the dishes they've prepared in Ruth's kitchen. Nika is very pleased to be in charge of the Nutella wafer cake!

Ruth Scheuer with her grand-daughter Nika carrying the dishes they've prepared in Ruth's kitchen. Nika is very pleased to be in charge of the Nutella wafer cake!

  Celina Widawski and her grand-daughter Taya preparing potato gnocchi together in Melbourne, to Celina's mother's recipe. 

Celina Widawski and her grand-daughter Taya preparing potato gnocchi together in Melbourne, to Celina's mother's recipe. 

MOTHER

Talking to Ruth and Celina, it's their remarkable mother Genia Wald who towers over this story.

She had 3 main advantages in her efforts to stay alive with 2 small girls in Nazi occupied Poland. She spoke German like a native. She had really solid false papers, which German soldiers could check and verify. And she wore black widow’s weeds over her dyed blonde hair, which allowed her to hide herself under a veil.

On top of that, a small store of money, a large dose of luck, and her quick wits enabled her to keep herself and her 2 daughters alive for 3 years on the run.

     Grand-daughter Taya holds a picture of Celina aged 5, with her parents Joseph and Genia Wald on holiday in 1936. The only family photos which Ruth and Celina have are those their parents had sent to relatives overseas. All their own family photos were destroyed during the War.  

 

Grand-daughter Taya holds a picture of Celina aged 5, with her parents Joseph and Genia Wald on holiday in 1936. The only family photos which Ruth and Celina have are those their parents had sent to relatives overseas. All their own family photos were destroyed during the War.  

But it is also a story of the complex relations between Christian and Jewish Poles during the War. No one "saved" this family, they saved themselves. And living amongst the Poles, they saw how Nazism unleashed evil and cruelty in many of their neighbours. Or perhaps, gave what was already there permission to emerge... 

FAMILY

It was love at first sight when Joseph Wald, an up and coming clothing manufacturer, saw 18 year old Genia Boskes in Lodz in 1927. He followed the beautiful secretary to and from her work for a year before they spoke. They married when she was 19.

They had 2 daughters, dark haired Celina and little blonde Ruth, and moved to Poznan, near Poland’s border with Germany to expand their business. Their contented comfortable life, with annual summer holidays and a nanny for the girls, ended abruptly when World War Two began.

 WAR

War was in the air in August 1939, and Joseph Wald cut short the family’s summer holiday so they could move their home and business  away from the border, further inland to Lodz. 

  Joseph Wald, left, with his daughters Ruth and Celina, and their cousin Max, Poznan, Poland   1938

Joseph Wald, left, with his daughters Ruth and Celina, and their cousin Max, Poznan, Poland 1938

He and his wife believed that if Germany did attack Poland, they would be safer there.

They couldn’t conceive that the whole of Poland would be overrun in a few days.

  German soldiers march in Warsaw, 1939. The Germany army trialled its 'Blitzkrieg', or 'lightning war' of mechanised land sea and air assaults in Poland. They overran the entire country within days.  

German soldiers march in Warsaw, 1939. The Germany army trialled its 'Blitzkrieg', or 'lightning war' of mechanised land sea and air assaults in Poland. They overran the entire country within days.  

FATHER 

The Walds, like the rest of the Jews of Lodz, were terrified by the stream of anti-Jewish decrees and believed – falsely – that men were in most danger. Genia pressured her husband to join a group of men leaving for Russia. He reluctantly agreed.

Celina was definitely Daddy’s Girl. She describes watching her father leave as “like having thorns driven through my body.” She prayed she would see him again soon – and she did. He returned within a few days saying, “Whatever happens to you should also happen to me, I don’t want to go alone.”

  Joseph with Celina when she was a baby. The photo is in a book Celina wrote about their lives, 'The Sun Will Shine Tomorrow'

Joseph with Celina when she was a baby. The photo is in a book Celina wrote about their lives, 'The Sun Will Shine Tomorrow'

lodz

By May 1940 the Nazis established a ghetto for the Jews of Lodz, squashing some 200,000 people into a tiny section of the town.

On the last day before the Ghetto was sealed, Joseph decided to move his family to the small town where he’d been born. He hoped that Tomaszow’s size and location would protect them, but they found the Nazis already setting up a Ghetto there as well.

  Above: Chief Nazi administrator in Poland, Hans Frank, addresses a Hitler Youth meeting in Tomaszow. Below: Left, Nazi leaders visit Tomaszow; Right, Jews of Tomaszow are rounded up. In 1941, 1500 Jews were deported to surrounding towns. In 1942, around 15,000 Jews they were deported to to the death camp of Treblinka

Above: Chief Nazi administrator in Poland, Hans Frank, addresses a Hitler Youth meeting in Tomaszow. Below: Left, Nazi leaders visit Tomaszow; Right, Jews of Tomaszow are rounded up. In 1941, 1500 Jews were deported to surrounding towns. In 1942, around 15,000 Jews they were deported to to the death camp of Treblinka

village life

The Tomaszow ghetto was too small to accommodate newcomers and they were deported to nearby villages. Ruth, Celina and their parents were sent to Drzewica, a picturesque village, sitting on a lake with a ruined castle nearby.

It’s still much the same today, as you can see from the pictures below, from the town's official website - charming churches and that Castle in a pastoral setting. But neither Celina nor Ruth mentions anything pastoral when they remember their time here. Things were different for Jews forced into the village by the Nazis. 

DRZEWICA

Celina says there was no German garrison in the town. But that proved to be a limited form of protection. Any Jew on the street when German soldiers drove in was likely to be shot.

Celina and Ruth's father Joseph  was in a different category. Having grown up nearby, he knew the area, and was also blue eyed, red-bearded and Aryan looking. He was soon sneaking out to trade with Poles from the surrounding country side, smuggling back food and medicine for his family and others. Some Poles also came in to trade with them. One young fireman came often. Till one day in early 1942, the Nazis ordered the Jews to assemble in the town square for evacuation to work camps.

evacuation 

They were instructed to be there at 5.00 am with only a small suitcase each. Ruth who was by then 7 years old remembers that she and Celina had little packages with jewels in them tied on their necks in case they got lost.

The young Polish fireman came to the Walds’ home while they were packing. This time, it wasn’t to buy clothing. He was there to warn them.

WARNING

He said he’d heard rumours that Jews weren’t being taken to work, but to extermination camps. He described families being separated, gassings and crematoria. He begged Genia to save her family.

“He felt sorry for us and he liked Mother a lot,” Celina says.

“We were aghast, we didn’t know. But he was right,” says Ruth.

The fireman’s warning prompted an argument between the girls’ parents. Joseph tried to persuade Genia that the Nazis needed people for work and extermination was anyhow not possible. He was angry with the fireman for coming to frighten his wife, and called him a “bloody anti-Semite”.

While they argued, 13-year-old Celina sat in the corner. She couldn’t fathom all the details, but she had understood the part about families being separated. What would happen to her and Ruth if that occurred? How could they possibly fend for themselves?  She feared the Nazis would put them into a school and be cruel to them.

“My little brain was working overtime, but my imagination was too limited to comprehend the real horrors,” says Celina.

“Perhaps my father was resigned,” Ruth suggests. “But my mother had this wonderful power and she said, Oh no.”

 Later Genia told the girls she believed the fireman was actually an angel sent by God.

 ESCAPE 

Genia remembered a Polish farmer who’d told her that if she was ever in trouble, she should come to him. She persuaded her husband to let her try. 

  A farm in the region of Drzewica today. Celina and Ruth and their mother hid at a farm while the Jews were being deported from Drzewica to Treblinka in autumn 1942. When the farmer returned and discovered them, they had to leave.

A farm in the region of Drzewica today. Celina and Ruth and their mother hid at a farm while the Jews were being deported from Drzewica to Treblinka in autumn 1942. When the farmer returned and discovered them, they had to leave.

Genia and her daughters left the ghetto that evening and reached the farm after dark. The farmer and his wife were away. Their 2 children, aged 12 and 14, agreed to shelter them. They put Ruth in bed with them and hid dark haired Celina and her mother in the barn.

In the morning, Celina and Genia lay under the straw listening to shots and screams as the Nazis rounded up the Jews and walked them past the farm to the railway. Hundreds died on the way to the train, whose destination was the death camp of Treblinka. Celina says she was “completely numb.”

After that, German soldiers went house to house, searching for any Jews who might have escaped. They came to the farm, and searched the barn, stabbing through the straw where Celina and her mother were lying.

The bayonets missed them. Luck was on their side that morning. 

In the afternoon the farmer’s children came to see if they were still alive.

  Jews were taken from Drzewica to the death camps of Treblinka in 1942. The Wald family escaped this transport, but the four never lived together as a family again.  

Jews were taken from Drzewica to the death camps of Treblinka in 1942. The Wald family escaped this transport, but the four never lived together as a family again. 

ghetto 

Back in the ghetto, their father had survived the night. Joseph was one of dozens of men the Germans kept alive to clean up and sort out the belongings of the deported Jews.

This meant that  on the morning after the liquidation of the ghetto, the entire Wald family was alive. But when the farmer and his wife returned, they were furious that Genia had endangered them and their children by coming to the farm. They ordered her to take her daughters and leave.

Joseph bribed them to give him a couple more days to find another hiding spot or false papers for his family. He bought the extra time with the promise of silver, linen and clothes from the ghetto. But before Joseph had finished setting things up, the farmer insisted they had to leave.

Celina remembers her father with tears running down his cheeks saying, “I’ve tried to build a house, and when it was nearly complete the roof caved in. What should I do now?”

life on the run 

Joseph recalled another woman in the village, Mrs Makowska, whom he hoped might help. He brought his wife and daughters to her and she agreed to take them in. But there was a problem. She had a tiny apartment and was about to entertain some Gestapo officers.

She pushed a closet across the room, and hid Genia and her daughters behind it.

They stayed there, terrified, while the Gestapo laughed and drank in the same room.

 While they were at Mrs Makowska’s, Joseph managed to arrange false papers for his wife.

“They were from a Christian friend, a pharmacist whose wife passed away. He sold my father her birth certificate and all the papers from before her marriage, in her maiden name. They cost a lot of money, but they literally saved our lives,” says Ruth.

JADWIGA, HER DAUGHTER MARysIA AND HER NIECE CELINA

The new ID transformed Genia into Jadwiga Kopaniewska, a widow with a 7-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old niece. She completed the transformation by dyeing her hair blonde, and adding a black widow’s dress, including a veil.

“So that’s what she wore, she thought a veil would cover her Jewish eyes,” says Ruth.

Does Ruth think her mother had Jewish eyes?

“She did,” Ruth smiles.

Then she looks sombre again. That ephemeral quality, whatever it was, meant that locals could ‘spot’ Genia.

"Poles looking for victims to deliver to the Germans for money, they said to my mother ‘Zyduwa – Jewish woman - come here, we’ll take you to the police station.'  And she would say, ‘Please, I have small children, I’ll give you my ring.' And that’s how she got rid of them.”

  Genia's 1943 Kennekart, her ID in her assumed name Jadwiga Kopaniewska. This was the name of a real woman who had passed away, and it was this high quality false document that helped keep Genia and her girls alive.  

Genia's 1943 Kennekart, her ID in her assumed name Jadwiga Kopaniewska. This was the name of a real woman who had passed away, and it was this high quality false document that helped keep Genia and her girls alive. 

warsaw

Now that they had a new identity,  the plan was to go to the capital Warsaw where no one knew them.

They decided that newly blonde Genia would go first with her naturally blonde daughter, Ruth, and Mrs Makowksa would bring Celina the following day. It was snowing when Genia and Ruth left to catch the train. Joseph, accompanying them, began crying. To Celina, it was plain he feared he would never see his wife and daughter again.

The next day, Mrs Makowska took Celina to Warsaw. Once again Joseph stood at the station sobbing, and this time he could not stop. Celina – daddy’s girl - felt bereft. She cried all the way to Warsaw. 

SEPARATE LIVES 

The girls had to adjust to their new names and identities and to being Christian. Their mother drummed it into them that if anyone suggested they were Jewish, they had to deny it, or they’d be killed.

Their father meanwhile had been moved to a second work camp, which the Nazis had established for all the Jews who had been involved in mopping up the ghettos, as well as any who had gone into hiding. The Nazis had built 2 new factories there before gathering in the Jewish workers, so it appeared convincing. Joseph considered himself fortunate to be there, and didn’t realise that it was an elaborately laid trap.

As conditions were relatively good, he suggested that Celina should come and stay there with him for a while, to make things easier for his wife.

Celina, who adored her father, was happy with the plan.

going to FATHER

 On the day she was due to go, Celina dressed in a warm coat and hat, waited “eagerly” for Mrs Gorska, a Polish neighbor who’d agreed to take her.

But when Mrs Gorska arrived, Celina began shaking and crying. She was overcome with dread and felt certain that something terrible was about to happen. Her mother was surprised, as Celina was not a drama queen. Genia allowed her daughter to stay, thinking she'd calm down and go the following week. She asked Mrs Gorska to go anyway, and take a letter to her husband.

The next evening Mrs Gorska returned crying.

She said she’d gone to the work camp and had seen Joseph and given him Genia’s letter. She decided to stay overnight at a nearby inn, and planned to see him again in the morning, but was woken in the night by terrible screams.

The camp was ablaze. German soldiers were dragging survivors away. Mrs Gorska said she went to search for Joseph in the camp, but hadn’t seen him. She hoped he might have run away and would join them soon. She did report seeing people who had been killed in barbaric ways, their throats slit, their bellies open. 

But Joseph didn't return. Genia was now alone with her daughters in Nazi occupied Poland.

FATE

After this terrible experience, Celina reflected on her own survival.

“I was alive. Some unknown force had made me stay with my mother. I still wonder what had come over me. Was it my destiny? After this incident, my mother always relied on intuition, whether it was hers or mine.”

BETRAYALS

The village pharmacist who’d sold Genia her false papers was the only person who knew their real identity and where they lived.

Now re-married, with a son, he came to Warsaw and propositioned Genia – adding that if she didn’t agree to sleep with him, he would denounce her to her landlady. Essentially, it was have sex with me, or I'll have you killed. 

Horrified, Genia told him she needed a few days to think it over. “He left full of hope,” Celina recalls.

That same night Genia went to look for other accommodation. The next morning when their landlady was at work they left, hoping to disappear without a trace.

What followed was months of moving places every few days. They could never find anywhere safe enough for a long stay. If anyone detected that they were Jewish, they had to pay them a “ransom” and move on, usually at night. Sometimes they would sleep in ruined buildings.

“From then on, fear was constantly with us, I do not remember one minute that we stopped being terrified,” Celina says.

DESPERATE PLAN  

Life on the run like this with 2 children began to wear Genia down.  She found herself giving up hope. Fearing they could not all survive, she devised a plan to save at least one of her family - the least Jewish looking one.

She decided she would try to leave Ruth in the care of nuns at a convent and she and Celina would continue on the road, taking their chances.

In early 1943, Genia approached a large grey convent on the outskirts of Warsaw, Ruth’s hand clutched tightly in her own. Genia was both remorseful and resigned. 8-year-old Ruth was miserable. They asked to see the Mother Superior and were granted an interview. A slight delicate woman, the Mother Superior listened to Genia explain that bringing Ruth here was the most difficult decision of her life, but she was exhausted mentally and physically and was not sure she could survive much longer.

“I want you to take my little girl, I want her to live,” said Genia.

The Mother Superior answered from her heart. She said she would be prepared to take Ruth, but she knew that a number of her nuns were anti-Semitic and she could not rely on them to protect her.

Instead she gave Genia directions – “Go that way!”– and said, “There are still some decent people. I will pray for you. In my heart, I feel that you will survive.”

WHO WAS THE FAVOURITE?

Celina believes that pretty blonde Ruth was her mother’s favourite, due to this as well as other incidents. But Ruth herself says she never recovered from the experience of going to the convent to be given away. She cries now as she describes it. Even as an adult, understanding all that she does, she can’t shake off the feeling of rejection.

“I’ve always felt my mother just wanted to unburden herself and just leave me in the convent. I felt unwanted. I know that she did it for my benefit. But as a child I felt that she wants to lose me, and that’s an insecurity I’m probably still living with. It's sad.”

 NEXT STOP WYGODA

Following the Mother Superior’s directions, Genia walked with her daughters till they reached the area of Grochow on the Eastern outskirts of Warsaw.  It is still green today, with large forested areas. Back then it was a series of villages surrounding the capital, just past historic Praga. Some parts still look the same, surviving the massive wartime destruction of Warsaw and the Soviet era reconstruction. 

  Buildings in the Grochow area of Warsaw, on the east side of the Vistula river. Celina, Ruth and her mother lived in a village called Wygoda for 2 years from 1943, till they were liberated by the Red Army in 1945.

Buildings in the Grochow area of Warsaw, on the east side of the Vistula river. Celina, Ruth and her mother lived in a village called Wygoda for 2 years from 1943, till they were liberated by the Red Army in 1945.

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  Some old buildings remain today in the Grochow area of Warsaw, looking much as they did when Genia hid there with her daughters, Ruth and Celina. 

Some old buildings remain today in the Grochow area of Warsaw, looking much as they did when Genia hid there with her daughters, Ruth and Celina. 

When the 3 reached the village of Wygoda, they were directed to the house of the Mayor. An elderly White Russian, he had a spare room at the back of his house. He rented the front to a couple who ran a small food store that also sold liquor, and he and his wife lived in the middle. Genia and her daughters moved in. The house had a small garden, and behind it a large sandy area that ran for miles, “like a beach without a sea,” as Celina describes it.

Genia told everyone that her boyfriend, Ruth’s father, was a miner who sent them money each week. People believed her and she and the girls settled into the first permanent home they’d known for months.

 In fact, Genia had only a few American dollars left, which she exchanged on the black market in Warsaw. The money had to last for as long as the War did, and who knew how long that would be, so she was frugal, with the result that the girls were always hungry. 

warsaw ghetto uprising

One day in April 1943, the sky was red and there was smoke everywhere. Genia and the girls joined their neihgbours outside. They told them the smoke was from a Jewish uprising. 

The Warsaw ghetto was burning.

“Some Poles were happy, laughing that the Jews were frying. Others cheered openly. Very few felt any pity at all. We had to stand and watch and pretend it did not bother us,” says Celina.
  Warsaw Ghetto Uprising April 1943. The revolt of the Jewish Ghetto took more than a month to subdue. In the end the Nazis bombed the Ghetto from the air. Those who were captured were deported to their deaths. The few survivors were those who escaped through the sewers. The Ghetto held out against the German army   for longer than all of Poland.

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising April 1943. The revolt of the Jewish Ghetto took more than a month to subdue. In the end the Nazis bombed the Ghetto from the air. Those who were captured were deported to their deaths. The few survivors were those who escaped through the sewers. The Ghetto held out against the German army for longer than all of Poland.

 Later in 1943, Genia and the girls heard terrible screams coming from the sandy area behind their house. Their neighbours said German soldiers were killing Jews who had been denounced to them. Neighbours who had witnessed the executions described them in detail to Genia and her ‘niece’ 13-year-old Celina.

They said German soldiers forced the Jews to dig their own graves and to undress before they shot them – men, women and children. Genia was devastated and said prayers for the souls of the dead. Celina was so scared that she used to sit away from everyone in a corner, crying.

“Many nights we heard the screams we used to cover our ears. We were also praying that we would not be discovered,” says Celina.

“My cleaning lady here in Melbourne is Polish and the same age as me, she’s not Jewish, and she also remembers the screaming in the woods,” says Ruth. “We are both witnesses, each from her own side.”

NO NORMAL LIFE

A local boy fell for Celina and she liked him too, but she played cool, aware that any kind of contact could spell trouble for them. With her “un-Polish” dark hair and eyes, her mother didn’t like her being out much at all. As there was no school, Genia taught both her daughters indoors. Celina began knitting, unravelling old jumpers to make new outfits to bring in some money.

And so they lived in one place without having to move on. The Mother Superior’s blessing had proved true for almost an entire year, here on the road she had sent them down. But at the end of 1943, a deadly rumour began to circulate in the village -- it was being whispered that Genia and her niece and daughter were Jewish.

Just before Christmas, German soldiers with an Alsatian dog burst into their apartment, which was decorated with a tree like all the other homes. The soldiers took Genia’s ID papers, their dog knocked over the Christmas tree and they left.

GESTAPO

Although Genia’s documents were solid, she was in a panic. It was now impossible to run away, since those ID papers were the guarantee of their survival. She had no alternative but to wait for the German soldiers to return. Genia put her daughters to bed. No one slept.

Celina had by now started to visualize what would happen when they were caught, and whether it would be better to turn her back or to face her executioners when she was being shot – a nightmare that haunted her asleep and awake.

Later that night, with a loud banging on the door, the Gestapo returned. Celina believes she fainted, as she cannot remember what happened after they burst into the room. Her mother told her that the sight of them in their beds, not preparing to run away, convinced the Gestapo that there had been a mistake. They apologised and said they would come back at a more convenient time.

In the morning 3 officers arrived to return Genia’s documents. They asked why other Poles had denounced them as Jewish, although they obviously were not.

Genia, quick, clever and audacious, replied in her excellent German, “The Poles here don’t like us as they think that we’re German. I'm from Poznan, near the border, and because I speak German they are suspicious of me and want to get rid of me.”

The Gestapo bought her story, so much so that they gave her their number so that she could call them if any other person falsely said she was Jewish.

Genia asked if they could repeat this in front of the Mayor. They did. Then Genia translated it into Polish, tweaking it a little, telling the Mayor the Germans would kill anyone who dared to say they were Jewish.

The German officers nodded and left.

Soon the whole village heard about this, and a rumour spread that Genia and her girls might actually be German.

 TRANSLATOR

Over time, whenever the German soldiers wanted to buy anything in the shop, or to communicate with the villagers, they called on Genia to translate. Sometimes the villagers asked for her to intercede on their behalf with the German soldiers if their sons were in trouble, for example for jumping onto trains and trying to steal coal.

Although Genia was frightened, she did go to the Gestapo on their behalf. “Everyone in town was grateful to her but also scared of us,” remembers Celina.

And that’s how the Jewish woman in hiding became the village translator and link to the Nazis.

WILLY

There was one German soldier who was often in the liquor store at the front of the Mayor’s house.

His name was Willy and he began spending time with Genia and Ruth, who reminded him of his own 8-year-old daughter. Once when he was drunk he confessed to Genia that he was a Communist and didn’t much like Hitler.

Still, when he spotted Celina, he told Genia he’d seen a dark girl around and didn’t want to see her again. He thought Genia was sheltering a Jewish child. Once he saw Celina in the shop, grabbed her, looked closely at her terrified face for a long time - and let her go.

THE TIDE OF THE WAR TURNS

By spring 1944, the Russians were drawing closer and Warsaw was being bombed constantly. The villagers spent their nights in bunkers beneath their houses.

German troops began retreating West, back to Germany. Willy came to tell Genia that his division was leaving, and that he thought she and her girls should join him for their own safety. Genia assured him that when the time came she would.

PHOTOGRAPH

She used this opportunity to ask Willy for a photo, ‘in case we should become separated.’ Delighted he brought her one which he inscribed to her and Ruth, 'so you will always remember Willy'.

He did come and call for them, by the way, when his division was leaving, but Genia and the girls remained quiet in their bunker and he left with his men.

They were replaced by a new German division, who commandeered Genia’s rooms. She and the girls were forced to move in with the Mayor and his wife.

Fearful of discovery, Genia hatched a plan. She went to her old room and knocked on the door. A huge red-faced Nazi officer appeared. Genia almost fainted, but went in. She showed the high ranking Nazi Willy’s photo and told him this was her brother. She hadn’t heard from for some time. Had the Officer perhaps seen him somewhere?

Genia also begged him to be discreet as the local Poles did not know she was German. The Officer hadn’t seen her brother, but said he was moved by her story, and was prepared to help her. The next day a car arrived, delivering food and coal.

He also offered to take them with him when he left. When his division was ordered to move on, he came looking for Genia and her girls, but they hid and he left without them.

As new German soldiers moved into Genia’s old room, she repeated the performance again – about 3 times!

Survival is not just luck. It’s also a skill.

WAR ENDS

By August 1944, the Red Army had fought its way across Poland from the East and reached Warsaw.

  From the summer of 1944, the Red Army was fighting its way East through Poland. Russian troops chased the Nazis out of Poland, including liberating the death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka.

From the summer of 1944, the Red Army was fighting its way East through Poland. Russian troops chased the Nazis out of Poland, including liberating the death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka.

The Russians stopped outside Warsaw, in its eastern suburbs, not far from where Genia and her daughters were living. 

Russian troops waited there for 2 months, while the Polish Army fought  to liberate Warsaw from the Nazis, in what became knowns as the Warsaw Uprising. Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered the pause, to weaken the Polish Resistance and to help Communism triumph in Poland. This led to widespread destruction, as well as great loss of life. About 200,000 civilians are estimated to have died, many of them Jews who were discovered by German soldiers in house to house searches. This remains a source of bitterness in Poland to this day.  

  A Polish soldier   raises the flag after Russian soldiers enter Warsaw. There is criticism of the Red Army for sitting outside Warsaw for 2 months rather than entering the city and preventing widespread destruction and bloodshed. However Genia and her girls wept with joy when the Russian soldiers arrived.  

A Polish soldier raises the flag after Russian soldiers enter Warsaw. There is criticism of the Red Army for sitting outside Warsaw for 2 months rather than entering the city and preventing widespread destruction and bloodshed. However Genia and her girls wept with joy when the Russian soldiers arrived.  

Celina and Ruth remember the last days of 1944 as pandemonium. The bombing and roaring of planes increased from day to day. People ran in panic to the shelters. They emerged one day in early 1945 to find carnage above ground. Bodies of fit young men, German and Russian, lay everywhere. Celina saw some German soldiers begging to be spared instead being clubbed to death by furious Poles.

Many Polish women tried to help the wounded Russian soldiers. Genia took special care over one of them. When he asked why, she told him she could see he was Jewish, and she was too. His face lit up, before they both began to cry.

FOOD

A horse which had been killed in the bombing provided meat for half the village, including Genia and her girls. “Between air raids, she minced and cooked fantastic meatballs,” Celina recalls.

“She didn’t tell us straight away what it was. After we ate them she said, ‘Now you can canter,’ can you imagine?” laughs Ruth. “They were so delicious…”

Both Celina and Ruth still talk glowingly about those meatballs. Two starving girls in the last days of  World War Two, lucky to have horsemeat. 

THE RUSSIANS ARE HERE!

They worried that the Germans would return, but the next day the main Russian forces moved in. “There were many Jews among them, and we welcomed them with open arms and wept with joy,” says Celina.

  Warsaw residents greet a Russian soldier, January 1945

Warsaw residents greet a Russian soldier, January 1945

Genia had to recite Hebrew prayers to convince a Jewish Red Army Commander that she too was Jewish. He was overcome with emotion as Genia and her daughters were the first Jews he’d seen since he'd been fighting across Poland. All the rest had been murdered.

Seeing how hungry Celina and Ruth were, he brought them food, medicine and clothing. They shared everything with the Mayor and his wife. The villagers were flabbergasted.

“We heard them saying, 'When the Germans were here, they were Germans. Now that the Russians are here, they act as if they’re Russians.'”

They didn’t dare to reveal that they were Jewish. The fighting was continuing just across the river on the other side of Warsaw, and they still had to be careful. They were lucky to be on the side of the city to be liberated first.

Finally in April 1945, Germany surrendered.

“I cannot describe the feeling. It was the most memorable day of my life. I could not believe that it was all over and that we were finally free,” says Celina.

But the reality was that they were not free yet.

Genia was frightened of the Polish villagers they’d lived amongst for 2 years, fearing they could turn on them if they discovered that she and the girls were Jews after all. So once again she decided to run, without telling anyone and without saying goodbye.

  Genia with her daughters in Lodz after the War. A Jewish officer in the Red Army began crying when he saw them, the first living Jews he had encountered as he fought his way across Poland. 

Genia with her daughters in Lodz after the War. A Jewish officer in the Red Army began crying when he saw them, the first living Jews he had encountered as he fought his way across Poland. 

LIFE GOES ON 

Ruth was 10 and Celina almost 15 when they returned to Lodz, the town where they were born, to try to resume life. They found that most of their friends and relatives had been killed including, they now had to accept, their father.

 But unlike many of the women we've interviewed in this project, who did not have mothers, aunts or older sisters, Celina and Ruth lived with their remarkable mother and learnt to cook from her. In Poland and in Australia, where they arrived in May 1949, she cooked Polish specialties, including both dishes which they make for us this week.

  Genia Wald, Melbourne, 1950

Genia Wald, Melbourne, 1950

They treasure the tastes that are also her memory including Polish soups like shchav – which she made with nettles during the War – and dumplings, noodles and pancakes, as well as slow cooked meat and chicken dishes. 

Ruth and Celina both cook with their grandchildren. 

  Nika helps Ruth in the kitchen

Nika helps Ruth in the kitchen

BIGOS

Bigos is sauerkraut cooked with onion, garlic and sausage, popular in Poland and Germany. Ruth’s version is pared down compared to other recipes. It's actually relatively healthy, with little frying. Ok yes, sausage. Processed Meat. I know, not the best. But relatively speaking… And it is really, really tasty. 

NOTE ON INGREDIENTS

 In the age of the microbiome where we are being pushed to eat pickled foods for health reasons, pickled cabbage is suddenly king. You can easily make your own, see our recipe here. Or you can buy it. Sauerkraut. Any brand will do. Ruth prefers those imported from Poland.

You wouldn't believe that sauerkraut is difficult to find in the Jerusalem markets. So I bought the Russian Jewish version, where the cabbage is salted with a little carrot and dill weed. Worked a treat.

Ruth's Bigos

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 large jar pickled cabbage  936 g ie just under a kilo
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 1 kransky sausage
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, crushed  

METHOD

  1. Rinse sauerkraut in a colander so that you wash off the pickling juice
  2. Fry onions till brown
  3. Slice up sausage
  4. Put the sauerkraut, garlic, sausage in a pot with the water. Put the onions on top, and cook, covered for 20 – 30 mins. The longer the better, though you can eat it after 20 mins.

  JERUSALEM TEST KITCHEN 

This is a quick dinner. If you like pickled cabbage, it’s a great dinner. 

It's 4 ingredients, and not much faffing around. You just put all the ingredients in a pot with some water to simmer. The only work you have to do is to fry an onion! Otherwise you can buy all the ingredients. And even if you pickled the cabbage yourself, that was a while ago now, it's also just sitting there waiting to be used. It's not much work for a very authentic taste.

I made two versions. The first was with chicken sausage. I know chicken frankfurters are not the same as a fatty Kransky sausage, but it was plenty good enough for me.

It is almost weird how these 4 ingredients, stewed in water, can meld into something new and dense. I think it's the cabbage that does the trick, and to my surprise, since this isn't my kind of dish, I really liked it.

And now for something more cross-cultural - Celina's Polish pasta made with potatoes. 

Celina's Potato Gnocchi            (Kopytka)

INGREDIENTS 

  • 6 potatoes - starchy potatoes are best
  • 1 cup plain flour - or more as needed to make a soft dough
  • 1 cup potato flour - add an equivalent amount of this flour if you are adding the other one; you want them to be in balance
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Large pot of boiling water

 TO SERVE 

2 onions, chopped and fried with salt

METHOD

  1. Prepare a large pot of boiling water. 
  2. In a smaller pot, boil 6 potatoes and mash with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cool. When the mashed potatoes reach room temperature, put them in a pile on a flat surface. Celina does it on a kitchen bench, not in a bowl.
  3. Mix the flours together and add 1 cup ie half the quantity to the potato and then make a well in the centre and add the eggs. It is a messy mixture, which you are turning into a dough
  4. Knead, adding more of the flour “Till it’s blended and is the right consistency.”  Celina describes it as a soft dough, though it is more firm than gnocchi dough made by Italians. 
  5. Divide dough into 8 parts, and roll each into a long log 2.5 cm wide.
  6. Slice into 1 cm pieces. These are your pasta bubbles. Throw them into the large pot of boiling water. They will float up to the top after 20 minutes, but Celina keeps them there for a further 10 minutes before removing them.
  7. While the pasta is boiling make the sauce. For Polish Jews it's a simple dish served with fried onions and salt. But you don’t have to be limited to that! You can serve them in whatever sauces you like –  I like them with tomato and basil, mushroom is also delicious,  or something creamy and cheesey … mmmm... 
  Ned and Taya,   two of Celina's six grandchildren, with their mother, Celina's daughter. 

Ned and Taya, two of Celina's six grandchildren, with their mother, Celina's daughter.