The memories return in flashes. None of the events are contiguous or chronological. I know what happened – I lived it – but the pieces do not always fit together.
Before September 1, 1939, when the Germans stormed into Warsaw, brutally disrupting the lives of the Jewish population there, I had a happy childhood. I was born on December 12, 1937 and I was fortunate to receive more love than most children. My parents, not to mention my grandparents, only had me to shower with love and affection. My mother’s parents lived just a few houses away from us on Wspolna Street, right in the heart of Warsaw. The first few years of my life hardly differed from the upbringing of any other child in any other place. Unfortunately for my family, we were soon caught in the middle of a humanitarian crisis where we were the victims. There was little indication that our lives were about to drastically change forever. For a while, my parents’ and grandparents’ biggest problem was that I, as a child, often refused to eat. Someone, my grandmother I believe, had a beautifully colored umbrella and whenever it was unfurled, I would open my mouth to squeal with delight, so my mother capitalized on this moment. She used it as an opportunity to put food into my, otherwise, stubborn system. Little did I know that a year later I would be starving.
Furthermore, little did anyone know that my grandparents would disappear from my life shortly after the Germans invaded Warsaw. They were, undoubtedly, shipped off to Treblinka. The next memory I have is of the Warsaw Ghetto, a place dominated by disease and discomfort; a place my loving grandparents never experienced; a place where my father was killed and where my mother risked her life for me; a place where hunger, fear, and a constant damp coldness consumed my every thought and notion.
THE WARSAW GHETTO
Whenever we walked briskly around the ghetto, my mother grasped my left hand firmly in her right and our pace was never leisurely. We scavenged for food in the streets. One day in particular, I spotted one measly potato laying on the ground. I timed it just right, so, as Mother rushed past, I leaned over and scooped up the potato, clutching it tightly, triumphantly in my little hand. My mother took the grimy, dirt-caked potato and scrubbed it on the rough material of her skirt. Using her nails, she broke the tough skin of the raw vegetable and handed me half, which I devoured. I was careful to savor every bite, as I knew that half of a potato would have to be enough to satiate my hunger for a good while.
I never dreamed that I would be eating the second half later that night. My mother saved her ration for me, no matter that it had been even longer since her last meal. She was just as starved as I was – and yet, she saved her portion for me so my hunger pains would ease.
My mother constantly made sacrifices for me in the ghetto in order to make my life – if that is what it could be called – marginally better and less painful. Her maternal love knew no bounds. She gave me life not only once, but a thousand times. Thanks to her, I survived.
The ghetto was always noisy; yelling and shouting was just another ordinary part of the horrific surroundings. One afternoon, in particular, will stand out in my mind forever. The volume level in the area was magnified and the screams intensified. But the most unsettling part was that all of the awful noise was radiating from around our apartment. Mother yanked on my arm with unparalleled force and ran forward. She dashed up the stairway as quickly as possible with a dense crowd impeding her climb and a scared toddler clinging to her arm. Once we reached the landing, the crowd thickened, but we could see that our door was open, putting the kitchen in direct view.
My father, clothed in a ratty dress shirt, trousers, and shlaikes, or suspenders, was limply laying on his left side, bleeding from a gash on the side of his throat. Mother threw herself on top of him, dragging me with her, and let out a blood-curdling wail that could have been heard on the other side of the planet. Her iron grip on my arm was unceasing – I was trapped, listening to her cries and feeling her wracking sobs against my tiny body. As we stayed in that huddle, my left elbow had nowhere else to sit except for in a pool of my father’s blood. The abysmal conditions of the ghetto already ruined my pretty dress, but now it was soaked through with the harsh red liquid seeping from my father’s fatal wound.
We laid there for what felt like an eternity, but someone pulled me off of my parents and took me from the room. I was relieved to be away from the scene, but that was the last time I ever saw my father. The vision of his pale, mangled body was the last I ever knew of the man I loved most. I do not even know what happened to his body. Maybe it was buried, but who really knows for sure? I have asked a great number of professors and war experts where those bodies from the ghettos went. It seems that they were haphazardly piled onto carts and dumped into ditches. Of course, the Nazis would have had little respect for the dead Jews – they had no respect for the living.
Worse than the trauma of finding his body, remains the fact that he disappeared from the earth and my life without leaving even a trace of who he was. Most everyone has photographs to document their childhood, but the tragic nature of mine left me with nothing except the faintest memories of my youth and my angelic parents.
My mother, an intelligent woman, had the advantage of having blonde hair. She spoke Polish, rather than Yiddish, and, thus, she could easily pass for being non-Jewish. Additionally, she had the “right” nose, a non-hooked nose, which the Germans used as an identifiable trait of Jews. Throughout history, the depiction of large, hooked noses has been implemented to demonize the Jewish people. The Germans utilized this mundane characteristic to profile those they viewed as inferior to them.
Soon after my father’s murder in the ghetto, Mother decided to flee with me – staying there with me alone was unwise. After losing my father, as well as his support, my mother felt helpless. If he was susceptible to murder, either one of us could have easily been next. How she managed to orchestrate our escape remains unclear to me. I cannot fathom how she conceived the idea and carried it out so flawlessly. I can remember the bright yellow star on her left sleeve, but I do not remember a star of my own. I must have had one, but it evades all of my memories, most likely because I was so young and we did not have any mirrors in our home. After we left the house one afternoon, I sensed an air of urgency about our trip. If I had thought for a second that we were leaving for good, I would not have felt sadness, as I had no sense of attachment to that horrible place. My only feelings of sadness were due to the fact that my father was no longer with us. Even though I was so young at the time of this tragedy, I understood that I would never receive another kiss, another hug, or another smile from him.
While our previous trips were not necessarily enjoyable, as we were on a hunt for scraps of food, this particular time felt heavier, more tense. Something about my mother’s attitude indicated that this trip would be different, and she was carrying a bulky bag. Even though I did not know of the plan, I had some items I never carried around when we searched for food, such as my beautiful doll, Laleczka. After a while, my mother daringly managed to slide open a sewer grate. I do not know how she selected it or knew how to access it, nor how we slipped in unseen, as it was not nighttime. I distinctly recall the stark contrast of light to dark once I plunged beneath the surface of the street and began my journey to “freedom.”
First, my mother tossed the black bag she was carrying down through the opening in the pavement and then I was next. Though she threw me down gently, I missed the landing and fell. I was not hurt too badly, just a little scraped, but I was very scared. For a moment, I felt as though she was going to leave me down there by myself. I looked upward toward the light to see if Mother was going to follow behind me. While I waited, I assessed my minor injuries in the damp, dark sewer as my eyes adjusted. After what felt like an eternity, I finally felt my mother land next to me amid the muck and grime.
Where are we now? What is this? All I could see, feel, was the stream of water rushing past me. It was wet, dirty…awful. My eyes were useless against the relentless stream. The water just kept splashing them to the point where I had no choice but to close them helplessly. My mother pushed me from the back to move us through the cramped gutter. Not only was it soggy, but there was tremendous pestilence – we were traversing the sewer for the whole ghetto area. All these years later, I can still smell the stench of that, seemingly, eternal passage. Rats skittered past me, though I tried my best to ignore them as I trudged through the dreadful sewer. My little companion among those vermin, Laleczka, was filled with cloth pillow-like material. Neither she nor I were immune to the horrific conditions in the sewage system. As I crawled along holding her, she became soaked through with the foul water and scent. I worried over and over how I could ever restore her beauty; seeing her so dirty and tattered weighed on my soul and hurt my spirit. She was my stunning little doll and even she was not safe in our former homeland, which had become Hell on earth.
As quickly and as forcefully as it had begun, the pushing from behind suddenly ceased. Mother scrambled upward, as she knew there was a manhole she could lift above us. Once she did, she hoisted me above ground and clambered up after me. I still wonder how she knew how far we had to crawl in order to emerge outside of the ghetto wall. How did she calculate the distance? How were we able to climb into the sewer and emerge undetected? Did she have help? She must not have…I do not think she would have trusted anyone. After my father was murdered, I believe she would have been too afraid to share any plans with anyone we knew. Regardless of whether she had assistance or not, her plan worked seamlessly, and for that, I attribute my life. I still marvel at how she calculated the distance to safety, but maybe her intuition took over in the sheer need to escape to survive. Somehow, even though she went into a grave venture that was full of the unknown, she saved our lives and still, my biggest worry was how I was going to clean my precious Laleczka.
After the epic escape through the labyrinth of the Warsaw sewer system, my memories scatter. I remember the confinements of not one, but several wooden wardrobes, but I cannot recall where they were exactly. We were constantly on the move, as Mother had a knack for knowing the right time to run. Her observance and keen sense of preparedness served us well; she might have noticed someone suspicious at the door or heard the Polish owners speaking about German Army progress. I always presumed Mother knew compassionate people in Warsaw and sought out help there. But what I began pondering a few years later was whether or not all those who helped knew she was Jewish. She passed for Aryan or Christian and, thus, did not hide in their homes. In contrast, however, I,, with my red hair, blue Jewish-looking eyes, and of course, the wrong nose, was forced to hide. It occurred to me that she could have told them I was just some Jewish girl she felt sorry for. Perhaps familiar friends she totally trusted knew the whole truth, but mere acquaintances did not realize the nature of our relationship. She could have easily said something to the effect of, “I will work for you, but in exchange, you need to make room for this child to hide.” One specific instance stands out in my mind, as I was so acutely aware of the imminent danger. My mother and I were both hiding in an attic of a Polish farmhouse when German officers pounded upstairs to inspect it. Luckily, their search equipment consisted of a stick and not a flashlight. Myy mother squeezed me tightly as they passed, and one of the sticks touched my foot. The seconds ticked by painstakingly slowly and I held my breath, but they must have mistaken my bony toes for a lumpy sack of potatoes. Once more, my life was spared by a stroke of luck.
I recall being safekept for hours at a time in those wardrobes, accompanied only by a chamber pot and my dirty, stained Laleczka…until one day I lost her. I do not remember when or how, exactly, but she vanished from my memories altogether sometime after she fell into disrepair. I still marvel at that irony — Laleczka survived that whole journey only to disappear once we had reached safety. The same could be said for my mother, who died suddenly of a heart attack in 1948. Before her sudden death, however, Mother searched fervently for a different milieu – a safe refuge for us. She knew of dear, close relatives in Peru who could incorporate us into their lives. She yearned for peace, rest, and stability – all things that Europe could not provide after the war ended in 1945. Jewish organizations that provided aid for survivors, such as The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, assisted in filling the void created by the Holocaust. But Mother knew adopting a new life with those held dear in her heart would be the best solution for us.
ANOTHER LIFE, ANOTHER WORLD
Fela, “Felutka,” Topilski was my mother’s beloved niece who lived in Peru with her husband, Michael. They, too, had survived the war and were able to make their way to Peru after receiving traveling papers from a French ambassador, a relative of theirs. Thus, my mother trusted that we could start a fresh, new life with them. Her uncanny sense of perceptibility knew no limits – she instructed Izaak Topilski, Michael’s father, to care for me if anything were to happen to her. By the time our own traveling documents arrived, it was too late for her, as she had already left the war-torn earth for a more peaceful place. I only wish she could have enjoyed the reward of her ultimate sacrifice with me. Izaak, whom I called “Grandfather,” traveled from Zurich, Switzerland for me; he was my new rock, my new savior. We flew to Lima on Panagra Air in July 1948 and my new life began. While the Topilski’s became my parents, I never changed my name from Lewkowicz. My biological parentage was never forgotten, even though Michael, Fela, and Izaak gifted me with more love and care than I ever could have imagined. They cherished me as if I was their own; their love was limitless and, as far as I was concerned, they were never a “replacement family,” but the true family I always needed. Izaak never returned to Zurich – he never left my side. He is buried in the Lima Jewish Cemetery.
Without my parents, I would not have made it into this world. Without my mother, I would not have survived until my 10th birthday. Without my adoptive parents, I would have not known happiness again. I experienced much cruelty at such a young age and, yet, with the continual support from those who saved me, I have the incredible ability to love. The tragedy of the Holocaust made me who I am today – a strong, independent woman who yearns for love. I surround myself with my children and grandchildren, filled with relief that they lead such drastically different lives than I did. Their warmth and joy makes up for the chilly, soulless days of my early years. Their hearts and smiles constantly remind me of the importance of family, the necessity of sacrifice, and the power of unequivocal and unconditional love. While I continually marvel at the choices my mother made, I know that I would sacrifice all that she did and more just to keep my children, David and Ilana, safe. For a long time, I struggled with the decision of whether to tell them my story or not — the last thing I wanted was for their young lives to be impacted because of my own past.
When my first grandchild Yarden was born, I felt that I had conquered Hitler. Not only am I a survivor, but a mother, a grandmother, and a victor. Hitler did not want me to live; he did not want me to produce future generations. Thus, I am victorious. My victory over Hitler is represented in my continuity, the greatest factor of all. In his eyes, I was not worthy of living or giving life. And yet my two children gave me seven grandchildren, who will continue to grow and succeed, making the world a better place to live in. My resilience, demonstrated through my ability to not only have a family, but love them fiercely, is what makes me a true survivor.
ABOUT IRENE AND MAGGIE
Maggie, a journalism major at Boston University, was enrolled in a Holocaust class during her sophomore year when she met Irene and heard her inspiring story. She offered to assist in any way possible to share Irene’s inspiring story and from there, the two bonded. Communication can be difficult at times considering the distance and time difference, but through a shared enthusiasm to get this story into the world, Irene and Maggie make it work. Irene recently moved from Peru to Israel to be closer to her two children and seven grandchildren. Irene’s son, Dr. David Shashar married Rotem Nir, a nurse; they have three children: Nevo, Omer, and Doron. Ilana, Irene’s daughter, married Dr. Josef (Assaf) Toib, a lawyer, and they have four children: Yarden, Yahel, Shirah, and Ivri. Maggie lives in Pittsburgh with her family when school is not in session.
It has been an honor to tell this sliver of Irene’s incredible story – I look forward to our future endeavors and our journey together. I would like to thank Irene for allowing me to share her memories, which she found difficult to put into words; after hearing her speak for merely twenty minutes, I knew that the Hell she endured and how she overcame it needed to be shared.
While her family cares very deeply about what their dear mother and grandmother went through, and while the Jewish community who has suffered for such a long time also cares, I believe that Irene has been very moved to know that a “stranger” (and someone not of the Jewish faith) is interested in sharing her life story. Through her tragedy, a new, wholly unexpected friendship arose. While Irene has experienced so much negativity in her life, I hope and pray this experience has brought and will continue to bring her joy. Moreover, cross-cultural, cross-spiritual, and cross-generational understanding and appreciation are key entities that will help to prevent future humanitarian atrocities.