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Memoir: My Other Life (As Told to Inge Packer)

The mirror did not reveal anything unusual. A pleasant looking woman of late middle age, greying at the temples, slightly over-weight, in sensible skirt, blouse and shoes. The day: a Tuesday in 1996, or 5756 in the Hebrew calendar, even that is not the right date because humanity is so much older. You may smile at her because she looks some how familiar. Did you see her at a meeting, the grocery, in the apartment building? Oh, if you only knew!

This is an autobiography, but I will write it in the third person, by the one that looked at me out of the mirror and who can hardly identify with that earlier one, the one whose experiences she wants you to know about.

Minna's parents Fanya (Feige) Swirsky and Max Friedland were married in 1917. Minna was born in Yekatarinaslav or Dniepropietrosk (Russia names and renames cities to suit its politics) where her father was a successful textile merchant. However times were turbulent, Red Russians fighting Whites. Father had already had his experience with the Revolution when he and a group of others were taken from a train, made to undress and hand over their belongings. Then they were lined up in a field and the soldiers began their executions when suddenly they were overwhelmed by opponents. Max fled, naked, to a peasant cottage. The owners fed and clothed him and allowed him to escape. With this background and the fact that he was considered a "bourgeois", flight was the obvious decision. The couple, smuggling Minna in a pillow case, ran away to Vilna where Fanya had family, and where soon afterwards her brother Boris was born. There is evidence that a settlement existed there as far back as 1128. In 1323 it became the capital of Lithuania. In the Middle Ages Lithuania and Poland united. After many occupations by Russia, France, Germany and again Russia, it became the capital of independent Lithuania. For 150 years, in the 19th and 20th centuries, its Jewish community was the center of Eastern European cultural life and a focus of the Zionist movement. In 1941 there was a Jewish population of 80,000. In 1945 all but 6,000 remained after the murderous policies of Nazi Germany.

Minna's grandfather Yoyne Swirsky was a forester in the employ of a wealthy Pole named Bushevsky who lived most of the time in Berlin. It was his job to buy and sell orchards, look after machinery that Bushevsky bought as a hobby and which was stored in warehouses on the large country estate which he had to supervise as well. Grandfather owned a small hotel which his daughters helped to manage. Bracha, the oldest, eventually married and moved to the U.S.A.; Rachel, who suffered from a slight palsy and never married; Leah, whose husband was dubbed "The Playboy" for his penchant for cards rather than hard work, their two children Chaim and Sheinele. Now the fourth daughter, Fanya Friedland, also lent a hand while her husband, unsuccessfully, tried to establish himself in Vilna. Grandfather was an Orthodox Jew, well-respected in the community. He was always formally dressed in a suit and tie, and wore a hard hat when he went out. He looked formidable to Minna and she adored him. To her, he appeared very tall, although, in truth, he was of average height. The highlights of her stay in Vilna were the occasions when he allowed her to go along on buying or selling trips to the orchards and the visit to Bushevsky's Lyntupy estate next to a shtetl by the same name.

Her mother and aunts were brought up on this estate with its miles and miles of forests, a lake and a white palace, partially destroyed by fire and abandoned. There were acres and acres of gardens and a large modern house, the replacement of the palace, which was run by a housekeeper and many servants. There were stables for the horses and small cottages which housed the farm workers and in two of which they lived in the summer--grandfather in one, Fanya, Minna, Boris and little Chaim in the other.

Max Friedland had gone to Warsaw to research business opportunities. The housekeeper from the Main House would bring homemade butter daily, presented with a curtsy, and they also had a samovar. Once a week the finest horse was selected for the carriage and they all went together to pick up the mail in the village, feeling and appearing like royalty, a situation that was not lost on the children from the nearby shtetl with whom Minna played.

One day there was great excitement because of the expected arrival of Bushevsky's distant cousin, a blind professor from Paris, the nephew of famous Polish bard Adam Mickiewicz. He had in the past been a frequent visitor. They went to the station and Minna presented the important man with a bouquet of flowers before the carriage carried them all back to the estate. Fanya had made gefilte fish and baked a challah for the occasion and was delighted that the professor remembered her.

Only one event spoiled the pleasant summer. A surveyer came one day and stayed overnight at the cottage when someone threw a brick through an open window. Fortunately nobody was hurt. It was Minna's first acquaintance with antisemitism and unexpected, since grandfather was well-liked and trusted, and her mother and aunts had grown up with the children of the village. It was a shadow soon forgotten.

Meantime, Minna's father finally met with success. He established a business in Warsaw. Of his two partners, one had experience in the production of jams, jellies, candies, cookies and chocolates. Fanya had always been a nature lover. She knew every mushroom and apple by name. Now she helped out by buying the required fruits in the orchards and shipped them to the factory in Warsaw. Fanya, Minna and Boris had left grandfather's hotel and now lived in an apartment in a nice neighborhood. One room was rented out to supplement the rent.

When Minna was 8 years old they were able to join Max in Warsaw, the capital of Poland, a small country between rapacious Germany and equally rapacious Russia. There they lived in a Jewish neighborhood and Minna attended Tarbut School for one year, where she and another little girl were the only females in a class of boys. Minna invited her friend to the house and when she reciprocated it turned out that her home was the local orphanage, run by the famous Dr. Janush Korczak, a medical doctor and author of children's books, who devoted his entire life to "his" children. When he put in an appearance, every one ran to Tate (Father) and Minna got a welcome kiss. You must wonder why this kiss is even mentioned, why it assumed such importance? It is because Dr. Korczak became one of the great heroes of the Holocaust. When Warsaw was occupied by the Germans his gentile friends had arranged for his escape, but he would not leave his children. When the Nazis demanded a round-up of the orphans he told his charges to dress in their best and to take along their favorite possessions. Then he lined them up in two's and, at their head, marched, singing to the local collection square from where they all were herded onto trains for Auschwitz and their demise.

But let us go back to the earlier happy times. Minna's parents valued Jewish education and she was sent to Gymnasium Yehudiah, while Boris attended Gymnasium La-or. Education was not co-ed but there was socialization between the two schools--dances, theatre outings, sport competitions and house parties with the parents participating. Minna dated a lot, also with Christian boys. It was a sheltered life. Living in a Jewish section she was seldom exposed to antisemitism, seldom but not never. Once, while walking, she overheard a Polish grandmother scolding her grandchild as follows: "If you don't behave, I will call the Jew!" Another incident concerned a very gifted school friend, a violin prodigy, whose teacher told her: "Why study so hard, you will never perform, you have no future." The father had his suspicions and the violin lessons were discontinued.

While Minna had no direct antisemitic experience, it was a different story at Warsaw University where antisemitism was institutionalized. Jewish students had to sit separated from gentiles on the left side of the classroom. There were beatings, publicized in the press. Jewish boys were afraid to walk in parks where they could be attacked by antisemitic student radicals with sticks to whose ends razorblades were attached. Minna had just graduated when war broke out and her childhood came to a sudden end.

Bombs rained on the city, fires broke out everywhere and dead bodies littered the streets. There were constant warnings on Polish radio: "Attention, attention young men, able to carry arms, leave the city!" Boris and his best friend joined the exodus to the East. It was not an orderly affair, rather a helter-skelter flight in the midst of bombardment. Many, whose homes had been destroyed or who had the strength or foresight, fled, mainly toward Russia. The highways were clogged with people. The Germans entertained themselves by shooting at them at random. Max, who was not well, did not want to leave while they still had their home and Minna would not leave her parents. They became more and more isolated.

The Warsaw inhabitants packed suitcases with their belongings so that they could travel from house to house and back. That is, if a house was on fire, they sought refuge with neighbors and returned home later, if possible. So it was with Minna and her parents. Fortunately their apartment was not destroyed although all the windows were shattered.

Daily the dead had to be carried to the cemetery. When an alarm sounded everybody rushed to the shelter in the basement. Minna's mother, ignoring the risk, boiled water in their 3rd floor home so that the elderly might have a drink. It earned her the name: "angel of Franciszkanaska Street." The bombing stopped with the German occupation of Warsaw and it put an end to the Friedland business. The Germans walked in one day and simply took over. Max objected violently. The Germans shrugged and kicked him out, literally. Food became more and more scarce. A black market developed. People exchanged belongings for bread and jam. The country woman, from whom they used to buy their supplies, tried to sneak through the German lines to bring them some vegetables. When Minna saw the deserted horse and buggy in their yard, she ran in to find the pregnant farmer lying on the sofa. The Germans had kicked her in the stomach, but she recovered.

People who had contacts with farmers looked to exchange personal possessions for provisions such as rice, beans, flour, etc. Jews at this time could still move about freely but were forbidden the use of trains and the Post Office. Minna acted as go-between thanks to Henryk's contacts with 2 Polish Policemen. They would mail the goods and when they received the provisions would share a commission with Minna who could in this way contribute to the family's welfare. Bread was in desperately short supply. From time to time, Fanya found work at night in a bakery to increase their ration. Minna also did her share. She would get up at 1 or 2 a.m. to stand in line for bread at a bakery although she could never make it to be the first and often went home crying when stocks ran out before she could get a share. Even when a person was lucky enough to obtain a bread, somebody could jump out from nowhere and snatch it away. So it was wise to hide it well under a shirt. Occasionally a farmer would arrive with a wagon full of potatoes or cabbages. In no time at all a large crowd would vie for the treasure. Every rumor was followed up.

Minna and a neighbor's son found out that people were going to the fields in the outskirts of town to dig up turnips, so they did likewise. Armed with large sacks and only their hands for tools they dug up the roots and filled their sacks to capacity. When Fanya took one look her face fell. The turnips were only suitable for farm animals. The two diggers were left with backs so sore they could not straighten up for days.

Water could also become a problem. The bombing had broken the pipes in their area. Fanya, pail in hand, joined a long line of women waiting for a supply of water when a German, taking her for a Gentile, roughly pushed her away from the "Jews". She came home in tears. The tears were not only for the empty pail. Fanya could not forgive herself that she had refused to go to the U.S.A. like Max's relatives when that had been possible. She reasoned that life as an immigrant would be hard while now they had comforts and she could afford a maid.

Out in the streets desperate people were roaming, hoping for a chance to sell possessions or simply looking for handouts. Minna will never forget the day she saw a young man, dirty and in rags, with a board strapped to his back to which he had attached some books for sale, as if there would be money for books when there was none for food. When she took a closer look she recognized, to her horror, a Warsaw friend who had been one of the young men who had left for the East. Across the street his sister stood begging, her arms and legs swollen. Her first thought was: "Oh my God, I hope he does not come to us. What if he has lice that could spread typhus and other diseases already rampant." But, of course, he did come to them and they shared what they had. Another time, she happened on a friend of her father, a dapper man, usually with a diamond pin on his tie, now a ragged beggar.

Life would be unbearable without the occasional piece of good news. They were overjoyed when a food parcel arrived from Boris who was working in a sawmill in Russian occupied territory. Two reasons to celebrate. Boris thought that he was safe there and also near his parents. Oh, if only that had been true. They never heard from him again. The only information that came their way was that he was taken away. No details ever came to light, perhaps a blessing. It kept the hope for a miracle alive.

The Germans, now, began to slowly evacuate all the Jews from the provinces to Warsaw. The Jewish community rose to the challenge and formed committees. In the largest of the courtyards of their apartment complex women took turns preparing large pots of soup. Housing, education, food and health committees were formed, the latter checking on cleanliness. Epidemics were an ever-present danger. Minna tutored a seven- year old girl who had some schoolbooks. She tried to impart on her student the miracle of life by way of planting beans that produced flowers and fruit, or, maybe, it was hope she planted. Hunger was ever present.

There was one way to lay your hands on some supplies, that is if you did not look Jewish and if you had a permit necessary to board the train. You could then go to the provinces and buy beans and flour. The husband of a couple, assigned by the housing committee to live with the Friedlands, had a source for such permits and asked Minna for likely customers. She, in turn, told her friend Halina. The next morning the Gestapo were at the door looking for Minna who was out. They would be back. Unbeknownst to her the friend's brother, one of the children with whom she grew up, had become an informer. The yard was full of curious and stunned people. When Minna returned she was told to hide or to flee, but she knew that if she did her parents would be arrested. So she waited for the Gestapo to take her away. In the car, frozen with fear, she put on a stoic front when they made false accusations such as: "Didn't you sleep with so and so?" and found other ways to attempt to break her down. She was placed into a cell with 12 other women, an interesting mix including a dancer, an actress and, most importantly, a fortuneteller. This illiterate country woman asked them to share their dreams with her. For each she found a positive explanation - they would be released soon, they would receive a food parcel and so on. Thus she kept hope alive.

The Jewish girls had to wash the floors of the cells and corridors. When no rags were made available they had to use their underwear. Often they were awakened in the middle of the night on cold days to chop the ice from the sidewalks in front of the jail. Once, would you call it a remnant of humanity? She found a little piece of chocolate in the pocket of her coat. She gave it to a 12 year old prisoner who was in the cell with her mother. The women tried to help each other. Minna had to wash the floor of a prisoner in isolation who was desperate for cigarettes. So Minna collected butts for her and got onions in exchange. Onions were said to keep the palate from softening due to the poor diet. At Christmas time the Jewish girls were look-outs while the Christian women were singing carols, which was forbidden.

Meanwhile Henryk, a young Pole with friends in the Polish police promised to help. Helena and Minna had met him in the park. He had been evacuated from Poznan to Warsaw and was very lonely. He visited the Friedland family regularly. During her imprisonment he brought them some food. Once, knowing they kept kosher, he sneaked in a live chicken. The chicken would strut around the kitchen, happily unaware that it was destined for the oven on Minna's return, but it was not to be. It had become a beloved pet eventually given away. More about Henryk later, much more. He would one day be honored and declared a righteous Gentile.

Fanya set out to save her daughter. Daily she would go to the office of two Jewish informers who had all kinds of privileges such as cars and permission to come and go as they pleased. She would sit on their doorstep, crying and screaming that she would smash every piece of furniture in the place unless they did something. Whether that did it or the fact that there really was not a case to be made against Minna, she was released after 3 1ū2

months. The informers were eventually killed by the Gestapo.

In the months of Minna's incarceration the Germans had been busy with mysterious constructions here and there. At last their purpose became clear and the Warsaw ghetto was walled in. Streets were cut in half, the park became out of bounds, several gates, manned by German and Polish police, served as entry and exit. For a time teenagers in groups were permitted to attend school outside. One German was overheard mumbling: "What's the use of this, you will be killed anyway." It was the winter of 1940, it was the winter of their despair. No work, no money, no food. All sorts of selling, legal and otherwise was going on. People, as mentioned before, exchanged possessions for food. Minna and her friend Helena were facilitators. If they heard that someone had a surplus of coffee, for instance, they became agents and exchanged it for something else.

The Germans needed work crews, They would hide in dark corners and then pounce on likely persons whom they lined up and later sent out of the ghetto in trucks--the men for hard labor, the women for cleaning chores. They never provided rags and as had happened to Minna in jail, they too used their underwear. Minna took the precaution to keep pieces of cotton on her person at all times, to be prepared, in case.

The Germans had yet another method of obtaining labor and since they were afraid to enter the ghetto they forced Jewish police to cooperate. These unfortunate officers still had their own headquarters. They were made to recruit suitable Jewish men for forced labor. They had to go from house to house in search of males. Fanya hid Max in the house and locked it from the outside with a strong padlock to give the impression that no one was there. It worked.

The Friedland family had no coal for heating. Father Max boiled water nightly to warm Minna's sheets. Husband and wife kept each other warm. The inside walls of their apartment were ice-encrusted. Henryk remained a loyal friend. Once he sneaked in a suitcase full of grain from the country. Tragedies occurred daily; arrests and killings became commonplace. Living with danger made Minna reckless so, when she had a chance to get out of the ghetto to the other side to obtain some food for the family, she did not hesitate. The cousin of a friend who had been sweet on her offered to take her. Naively she did not question: "How come?" They came safely out of the ghetto. He left her in a friend's apartment by herself, a situation she found rather strange. The cousin looked around for supplies. In the morning he came for her and they returned but, this time, the guard recognized her as Jewish. The cousin, it turned out, was an informer. He gave the man his identification number which was verified by phone and there were no further difficulties. Not long afterwards he was called out in the middle of the night by police on a supposed mission. He was shot in the back of the head and his body left on the sidewalk as a warning. Many others died the same way after having been used.

Minna stayed in touch with Henryk by public phone since they had none. He pressed her to leave the ghetto with his help and live on the other side as a Christian. Minna hesitated. The thought of leaving her parents in this time of peril was unbearable. Rumors were rife. Fear of worse to come was constantly in the air. On June 22, 1942 the gates of the ghetto were closed and mass deportations to the concentration camps began although people were not then aware of the extent. There was no more time to lose. Again it was Minna'a mother who saved her life. She insisted that Minna listen to Henryk. "Outside," she said "you can be of more use to us than inside."

The Courthouse bordered the ghetto. It had two entrances, one on Leszno Street, inside the ghetto and another on Biala Street in the Polish section. Jews had access to that building to pay their taxes. It was here that the Christian partner of a mixed marriage could meet his or her mate and provide food and comfort before they had to separate again, each to go to their own side. It was here Minna used to meet Christian friends until the closure of the ghetto. It was to this Courthouse that Fanya took her daughter. As soon as they reached the steps she handed her a little bag containing some gold and a few valuables, collected over the years. "Take good care of it!" she said, "It may save your life and perhaps ours one day," and without another word or kiss she pushed her up the stairs and ran away. Henryk had bribed the Polish guard. He and Dobrosz, the janitor of the building who had become a friend, were waiting at the door, pulled her in quickly and took her to a basement room to wait there until the two could devise a way to take her out of the building to the Polish side. There was no time to indulge in heartbreak.

Shortly after working hours, around 5 p.m. Henryk and Dobrosz returned. The two blond, blue-eyed Poles, looking every inch the German Aryan ideal, linked arms with Minna who had hidden her long, black hair under her hat. The three mingled with the hundreds of municipal workers, secretaries and other employees and marched to the gate, guarded by German police armed with bayonnets. The guards were of course fully aware that this was an escape route. Minna looked them straight into the eyes. In retrospect she could hardly imagine where she found the courage. They passed into the near normalcy of Christian Warsaw.

But now there was the problem of what to do with her. Henryk lived with his parents and 6 brothers and sisters. His mother had a heart condition. Dobrosz lived in a one room apartment with his 5 months pregnant wife, a happy state that they had longed for since years. Julia was understandably not too thrilled. Nonetheless they took Minna in until a solution could be found. A plausable explanation was concocted. Minna, with an identity card as Maria Mark and wearing a large cross on a chain around her neck, was passed off as a cousin from the provinces come to help with the hard work such as washing the steps, cleaning the yard, etc. Whenever people came down to ask the janitor for some assistance, Minna disappeared behind a drape room divider. After a few days she began to feel a little easier and armed with a bag went out to buy groceries. However little kids no more than 4 or 5 years old, would run after her shouting: "The dirty Jewess from the ghetto!" It was not long before a Polish policeman arrived from the Gestapo. Julia fell on her knees, kissed his hands and pleaded: "She is a good girl and her parents are good people. We know them since long. You must let her live!" The policeman thought for a minute. "Do you have any gold?" He wanted to know. Minna took off her ring, necklace and watch and gave them to him. "You must leave right away," he said, "they will come looking for you," and was gone.

Minna was moved to the 3rd floor into an apartment of a lonely widow who welcomed the company and rent money. This worked until one day when, coincidentally Henryk was visiting the Dobroszes and saw the Gestapo enter the building. He ran upstairs, rushed her out and onto a dark street, where, in spite of the curfew, she had to wait for him while, once again, he sought shelter for her. This time he found 2 spinster sisters who welcomed a roomer and suspected nothing unusual. After a few days in this new environment she felt comfortable enough to go to the store and a hairdresser who died her black hair a chestnut brown. She was sure it would make her look less Jewish.

Meantime Henryk found her permanent accommodation with a once wealthy family, an old mother, her son and daughter-in-law and a spinster daughter. They needed the money of a roomer. They totally accepted her, even treating her to a bit of meat for supper on name days, birthdays and other holidays. Nightly Minna put herself through a discipline. To pass herself off as a Christian she had to be well-versed in Catholic prayers. She could be stopped any time by a German official and, of course, had to be able to recite these, if asked, as well as her full name and personal history, her false identity. Nightly she would sit under her blanket and go through all this finishing off with this: "I am a Christian, even if the blood should run through my ears, my nose, my mouth, I am a Christian!" She had to believe it and eventually it seemed real. Although this was the most life-threatening problem, there were others. For instance it was illegal not to work. So Minna left in the morning and spent her entire day sitting, hunched over, in a pew of a cold church, frozen to the bone.

Again Henryk and a friend came to the rescue and found her a job in a library. Daily she took a streetcar, bent over a book under a large hat to hopefully hide her true identity. The Poles, it seemed to her, could smell out a Jew from miles away. It was not unusual for a streetcar to be stopped and every one lined up and questioned and it happened to her, but thanks to her nightly discipline, she passed with flying colors. Afterwards she nearly fainted. This library was located in a beautiful part of town surrounded by elegant cafes and stores. It was run by a committee of writers and artists and headed by a Baroness. Another Maria was employed besides Maria-Minna. One of the borrowers, actually a near neighbor of hers and a married man, could not take his eyes off her and kept nagging her to go for coffee. Finally, just to get rid of his constant pleading, she agreed. During their conversation she mentioned that some people thought she looked Jewish. It got him so excited that he promised to kill any such "accuser". What bravado! What a chance for her to have taken.

Since her salary was not sufficient even to pay the rent, she had to look for ways to supplement it. Henryk's friend AndrČ had lived in France for a time and learned the production of all sorts of liquors. These he prepared in his basement and then filled empty, appropriate bottles he had collected. Minna would take 5 at a time to sell to restaurants. This was, of course, extremely dangerous. Not only was she posing as a Christian, she was also dealing in falsely labeled merchandise. Whenever she saw German or Polish police she ran into the nearest apartment building and climbed to the top floor until all was clear. She also took some of this Vodka to the library where she let it be known what she had under the counter. When a sale was made the three women shared the money. Their Beauty Parlor, across the street, supplied some of the customers. Once Minna received a shock when a Jewish school friend, also with a new Christian identity, came in for whiskey. Not a sign of recognition passed between them, just a whispered: "Glad you are alive." Another time she sent her maid Anna who brought along a quantity of underwear for sale. The friend's husband was hidden in a space between walls. Another friend's husband, concealed in the same way, made up leather wallets and other small articles they tried to sell. Thus people helped each other. Not all such sales worked out well. Two young girls came in one day and asked permission to advertise knitted things that one of them made. They never got a chance for a sale. The Gestapo found them. One jumped from the window to her death, the other was taken away....

The most insignificant occasions could be precarious for Minna. The son of her landlady was quite an antisemite, but, unfortunately for him his wife looked Jewish. She had taken a liking to Minna and wanted her to go for walks with her and how could Minna refuse. Another "innocent" situation could have led to disaster. Minna kept vodka in the pantry of the apartment. Once the family had a little celebration and, of course, vodka was served. Minna, not used to drinking, had to put on a show. She was asked to bring in the hors d'oeuvres from the kitchen. There she stumbled and dropped everything and upset the samovar, she was so shikker from her massive consumption of shnapps. No one heard and luckily, her survival instinct was so strong that, even in this state, she did not reveal anything.

Christmas presented another problem. Minna could not afford to appear isolated. She had to get herself invited. While she was still with the Dobroszes she had made the acquaintance of another Jew passing himself off as a gentile. Kuratewicz had connections. At that time her father had managed to bring parcels with linens and clothes to the courthouse which K. would sell to the farmers who were happy to get these second hand goods, not available new, and they received a little money. It was also with his help that Minna obtained the all important Kennkarte (identity card) To get this card a birth certificate had to be presented. Kuratewitz used his connections. Money changed hands several times before it finally reached a priest who gave her the name of a deceased infant. He destroyed the child's death certificate and Minna got the child's birth certificate. Now she became Maria, Janina Burczynska and had no trouble at the City Hall where she was granted the Kennkarte.

Kuratewicz was now a friend and Minna spent Christmas at his apartment. They drank vodka and cried all night. This man, who had helped numerous people in one way or another, had found a refuge for his sister but before he could get her there she was murdered. Minna could match tragedies. She had just found out about the fate of her parents from a former neighbor. It seemed that her father had been taken away, but her mother was still in the apartment. When the Gestapo arrived she and a neighbor hid in the attic. A frightened child began to cry and they were discovered. Fanya had always said that they would not take her alive. True to her promise she fought the Ukrainian attacker tooth and nail and he knifed her to death. The tears Minna shared with her friend K. were her only relief. The grieving and mourning had to be indefinitely postponed. Life preservation demanded that she live a lie, however hard.

The library work went on as before. From time to time her landlady was bedridden and therefore unable to visit there in person. Minna brought her books which they discussed like old friends. Meantime a volcano had been building up under their feet and on August 12, 1944 it erupted. What Minna had not known was that the Warsaw uprising had been in preparation. The restaurant across the street, whose peaceful pigs were munching in the backyard, was one of the cells. The carpentry shop, where Minna frequently hid her vodka because the Germans were in the habit of making impromptu visits to the library, was another cell of the underground army. Now the gates in front of the library building were shut and every one inside was cut off. From the windows Minna could see the first shots. The basement was arranged as a first aid station and shelter.

Minna could not get back to her room, which was near Gestapo headquarters. Her mother's little bag with valuables remained under the mattress, buried forever. Everyone was stuck in the library basement, the women peeling potatoes. The couple, who had lived upstairs, had an only daughter, Renata who became Minna's close friend for the duration of the war. Mr. Kulczycki had been a career musician and composer and director of a music academy in Katowice. He had been absent for some time from his home in Warsaw because, it turned out, he had a new career, he had become the chief of the underground army, Warsaw section, he was Captain Sas. Minna had no place to go so the K. family adopted her, even gave her a pair of shoes, another example of people helping people. The library was now closed, however the gates of the courtyard were opened after a few days in spite of the shooting going on in the streets. Uprooted people went from building to building to find an empty apartment for a day or a week. Mrs. K, Renata and Minna set out to find Captain Sas. During the wanderings they happened at run into the daughter-in-law of Minna's former landlady and Minna had another of the frightening experiences that her false identity exposed her to. "How come you know this Jewish woman?" the K's wanted to know before they discovered their error.

The three of them eventually reached the headquarters of Captain Sas. Now Renata's father would send his daughter and Minna on missions. They delivered passwords, bandaged knees and in general made themselves very useful. Even though "Maria" had not been officially inducted into the Underground she had become a de facto member. She grew more independent. For instance she would spend a few days with Genia, one of Henryk's friends. This girl was deeply religious and while there Minna had to get up at 5 a.m. to attend Mass. Genia's piety went beyond recital of prayers. She was the owner of two fur coats and, sensing a need, gave one to Minna. Without that coat, Minna might well have perished, but that is a later story. Back to her activities during the uprising. Besides working with Captain Sas, Minna had branched out to other cells. It became her duty to go from floor to floor in burning buildings to search for anyone who might be trapped, all this while shooting was going on. The volcano of preparation that had been building up secretly before the uprising had a match in Minna herself. All the enforced passivity under the occupation, all her repressed energy, now exploded in fearless exploits. She stumbled over fallen bricks and broken glass, her knees frequently bleeding and heedlessly rushed into buildings as one driven. Was it that although she could not save her loved ones, now there was an opportunity to rescue others? It earned her the name "crazy Maria". Another example of "craziness" was her visit to a sick friend who had shared her cell and was hospitalized. To get there she had to negotiate a barricade and bypass bodies, right and left. Anusia was thrilled and, not realizing the difficulty, pleaded with Minna to bring her something sour that she claimed her body desperately needed. "Crazy Maria" returned to her "family" and Mrs. K., touched by the request, managed to find four olives. Back went Minna, again over the barricade, to deliver the treasure. When Anusia was released she paid back with a plate of pea soup.

October 14, after 63 days of the uneven battle, the Germans won. Mrs. K. Renata and Maria-Minna joined the immense exodus that emptied the city of Warsaw. Minna had had a choice of joining the army of the prisoners of war and be interned or going along with the fleeing thousands of civilians and she chose the latter. Among these hordes discovery would be less likely. In Pruszkov there was a make-shift camp where the Germans separated the old from the young, the former to be placed on neighboring farms as slave labor, the latter to go to Germany to work in munition factories or on farms. Here Minna and Renata were joined by Jadzia, who, all alone, was happy to make friends and these three would remain together until the end of the war. A deserted factory served as their camp. They had to sleep on the stone floor. If it had not been for Genia's fur coat Minna could have caught her death of cold and she blessed her friend nightly. While the girls were waiting to be placed they were allowed to walk about. Their cage without walls extended to 3 miles in either direction. Their favorite place was the bank of the Rhine and there one day they met a Dutch sailor. Bernard invited them to tea on the barge, owned by his family. It was one of several, now stationary, that used to transport ore and salt but had been damaged by bombs, exaggerated by the owners to sabotage the Germans. For now they got away with it since few officials could be spared for inspections. When they told Bernard that they were about to be evacuated, the owners got together and decided to take the trio on board. The girls had to swab the decks nightly and do cleaning and sewing chores in the comfortable quarters below. The Dutch shared their food with them even though food was short. Only at night could they occasionally get a breath of fresh air. It was important that the neighborhood farmers not see them on deck. Once a week the Dutch had to present themselves in town to obtain ration cards. They grew more and more nervous about their not too welcome guests. Whether they invented the rumor that they had been seen or whether it was the fear that their boat would be confiscated had the girls been discovered, they made them leave. When self-interest comes into conflict with one's humanity the choice for most is easy.

What must it have felt like to be cast out after having been sheltered, to walk through the fields without a destination, to hide in ditches at night? Minna and Renata felt very pessimistic, but Jadzia would have none of it. They plodded on. Out of the blue, once again, a stranger came to their rescue. Erik, a Pole from a nearby camp for sick farm workers, mainly women, gave them a pear. The reason he was there was that he had poured boiling water over himself to avoid working for the Germans. He sneaked the three into the camp and hid them. When it came time for the evacuation they joined all the others. Luckily the Germans had no lists. They chose to return to Warsaw. Erik considered that a bad idea and prevailed upon them to work on farms in Thueringen where, at least, they would not go hungry. He took them by train to the town of Wahlwinkel where he spoke to the Mayor about their situation. They were placed, Minna the lucky one, with a wealthy butcher and his family - husband, wife, grandmother, a young couple and their daughter of eleven. While other men had to join the army this butcher was needed and could stay behind. Minna washed and milked eight cows and brushed five horses. They were a sympathetic audience when she poured out her heart: "What will become of me, where is all this going to end?" When she was not working with the animals or busy with other farm chores she brushed the mother's and grandmother's hair. In her "spare" time she played with the little girl. The family loved having a maid and the grandmother knitted socks for her.

One of the farm activities that everyone, including the neighbors, participated in, was the slaughtering of pigs and the preparations of salamis which were then stored in the basement for their family's future use. Minna always had an abundance of food. It was not so for her two friends. On their farms the men had left and the women managed as best they could. Whether there was not enough food to go around or whether the girls were mistreated, all they received were 3 slices of bread for breakfast and another three for supper. Minna felt guilty about her good fortune and it caused her to become a thief. Almost weekly she stole a ring of salami to supplement her friends' diet, fortunately without discovery. She bit the hand that fed her, but what courage! What a terrible risk! What disregard for her own safety!

The farm often had German guests and provided food and lodging. One day 60 soldiers arrived on motorcycles. The women rushed to the kitchen to peel potatoes, and miracle, out of nowhere the Americans arrived. In less than five minutes the Germans had disappeared. The girls rushed outside, the big "O" tag on their coats identifying them as forced labor from the East. The soldiers threw candies, chocolates, gum, even kleenex from their tanks. The locals mistook the paper tissues for handkerchiefs that the "wealthy" Americans could afford to throw away. Now the butcher had different guests. Minna knew a bit of English due to the foresight of her father who had made her take lessons. She became the translator. The changed political situation affected the relationship of the girls with their "employers".

Why were they fraternizing with the enemy of the Germans? It was time to leave. The butcher and his family were most unhappy with her decision. Nonetheless they made her sandwiches and wished her well. A new chapter of her odyssey began.

The three girls got together and set out with Russians, Yugoslavs and Poles. They arrived at a small Polish camp. It soon swelled and a migration began to a Displaced Persons camp at Wildflecken. The Allied Army was not prepared for an influx of 12,000 persons. There was not enough food to go around and the frustration led to an uprising, quelled by the patient American Commandant. Other problems arose, coffee and soup were made in the same containers without a washing between, in fact, kitchen hygiene was non-existent. Dysentery was rampant and also affected Minna, but her misery was temporary. Yet a new chapter was about to begin.

Minna's relatively tranquil life would receive an unexpected jolt. While out for a walk she met a fellow D.P. and he blew her cover. "You are Jewish, aren't you?" he said. "There are 33 of us in Block 3. Trust me!" With that he showed her his arm tattooed with a concentration camp number. Minna was overwhelmed with contradictory feelings. Her first impression was: "How dare he, I am a Christian now!" But then it sank in that the mask was no longer necessary. "We have been stealing cows from the Germans," the soldier said. "We have plenty of food, you come with us!" Minna knew what she had to do, but how to tell her friends, her companions in misery, her support? How especially to tell Renata who considered her a sister and was ready to share her life with her in Warsaw? She decided to tell them one at a time. She took Jadzia into the fields and confessed. Jadzia fell around her neck and screamed: "I am Jewish too, I am Jewish too!" With that they collapsed, crying, on the ground. When they recovered they told the truth to Renata who was shocked. This possibility never occurred to her so perfect had been Minna's camouflage. They parted with tears in their eyes and the two Jewish girls joined block 3, whose head was a dynamic young man named Joseph Buda. He had found out that there was a large Jewish D.P. camp in Landsberg am Lech, not far from Munich, and arranged for their transport. This camp was not far from an American base of soldiers, waiting to be shipped back home.

The Jewish soldiers were naturally very interested in the D.P.'s and visited often. One such was Bill Singer, who fell head over heels in love with Minna and wanted to marry her on the spot. Even though she refused, he did everything he could to help. He sent an Army cook to prepare meals for the two girls and when he heard that Minna had relatives on her father's side who lived in the U.S.A. he called his father in Brooklyn. Mr. Singer put an ad in the Forward, the Yiddish newspaper. Max Friedland's oldest sister saw it and wired immediately. The wire arrived in the middle of the night. Bill was so excited he could not wait. He took his jeep and armed with a flashlight drove to Minna's door. There was screaming, there was crying, there was an overpowering feeling of rebirth into her own family, there was an eerie conviction that her dead parents had become her guardian angels and guided her path. The aunt sent letters, money and parcels. Life had turned around.

Minna wanted to make herself useful while waiting for her future to unfold. She asked the English Commandant for a job and became a switchboard operator. The camp was subsequently reorganized and run by three UNRRA officials, the director Dr. Glassgold, the welfare officer Dr. Srole, a professor of Anthropology on leave of absence to trace his wife's family, just recently married and the deputy director Moe Aspler in charge of a motor pool of 50 drivers. In spite of her sketchy knowledge of English the Columbia University professor Dr. Srole employed her as his secretary. "Don't worry about your English," he said, "I will teach you," and he did.

Friday nights the camp put on dances. Moe had only eyes for Minna and monopolized her, leaving several wallflowers to languish. So, did he fall on his knees? Did he kiss her hand romantically? Did he in fact propose? No, too shy for that he merely asked: "How would you like to come to Canada with me?" She would and she did and the life of the second Minna began.

A footnote to Minna's history:

Moe gave his bride an exceptional honeymoon. He presented her with a family, her father's American family. Before settling in Montreal they visited the U.S.A. and her aunts, uncles and cousins. Chana Friedland (the one, who saw the ad in the Forward) and two cousins in New Jersey, an aunt and uncle and two cousins in Baltimore, two aunts, two uncles and four cousins in Asbury Park, N.J. an aunt and uncle and one Cousin in Long Branch, N.J.

A further history:

Minna and Moe Aspler, Twin offspring:

Fanya (Danny Taggor) three daughters - Sigal, Maia, Sharon in Israel

Saul, Carl (Martha) a daughter and a son - Sarah, Daniel in Toronto

  


Appendix

 

Yoyne Swirsky, Minna's maternal grandfather, widowed

4 daughters:

Bracha, the oldest, married and went to U.S.A.

Leah, married local "Playboy"

her 2 children Chaim and Sheinele

Rachel, never married

Fanya-Feige Friedland, Minna's mother

Max Friedland, Minna's father

their 2 children: Minna and Boris

Bushevsky, wealthy Polish landowner

Helena, schoolfriend

Izio her brother, and informer.

Halina, best friend

Henryk Krueger, Halina and Minna's friend

Righteous Gentile

Dobrosz, a janitor

his wife Julia

Mrs. Brochowsky and family, landlady

Andre - Andrzej, Henryk's friend, producer of Schnaps

Kuratewicz, a man with connections

Mr. Kulczycki, musician,

Captain Sas

Mrs. Kulczycki

Renata, their daughter, Minna's wartime friend.

Genia, a friend with 2 fur coats

Jadzia, a wartime friend

Erik, a wounded Pole

Bill Singer, American soldier

Dr. Glassgold UNRRA director

Dr. Srole, UNRRA welfare officer

Moe Aspler, deputy UNRRA director, married Minna

 



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