You may be aware that a new friend in the Netherlands recently acquired this unsigned narrative by a Polish survivor who was liberated on the train from Belsen by the Americans. The narrative was written in English shortly after liberation in 1945 (as you can see from the letterhead, on the German commandant’s stationary) at Hillersleben, Germany, where the Americans billeted them to recuperate. This past week we were able to help identify the author, Gina Rappaport by following leads in Israel.
The author’s family is very excited, and would like me to share the five page document with the people at the Museum and Bergen Belsen Memorial. The transcript was typed by one of my students.
“I begin the story of my sad experiences in this terrible war as follows:
The First of December [September] 1939. The war broke out. It was a terrible day for all people of Poland. After several days of battle the first German troops occupied Cracow. It was a fatal moment in my life. I was eighteen years old.
Until this day I did not know the meaning of fear, I was never afraid. I was standing near the window in my own room and looking down, my face was pale and tears were flowing down on my cheeks. I felt that now is the beginning of a new, bad life.
Just the second day of the German occupation all buildings were covered with orders and instructions. Everything was forbidden, we did not know what to do. All Jews of Poland were obliged to give up their foreign money and gold. After several days all Jews were obliged to leave their nice lodgings and move in the ugliest rooms of the town. After two weeks took place registration from people to work from 16-60.
Every day the German soldiers took people from the street to clean the town. All Jews were obliged to wear signs. In December was a search of all Jewish dwellings. The SS men took gold, money, and silver. Every man and every woman were compelled to take off all their underclothing. They searched very exactly. In the meantime they took away the nice furniture and nice clothing. The all goods of Jewish (people) shops were taken away and carried to Germany.
Every day were new instructions. Beside this every day were searches affected in different houses. It was forbidden for Jews to have food cards, and we were forced to buy everything at the dearest prices. If somebody of the German soldiers observed the buying of food on the part of Jews, we were punished. It was the preface of our bad life. And so things went until the 15 of August.
On that day a great part of Jews were compelled to leave Cracow for several nearby little towns and villages. I and my family left Cracow for Tarnow. We arrived Tarnow at the 16 of August. The first day in a strange town was terrible. I was awfully sorry. New troubles, new German orders and dispositions. What could we do?
We were without dwelling, without hot food. At last we got a little room on the third floor in the [sic] attick. We had lost everything because my father was abroad. My mother was ill. I was forced to earn our daily bread. I worked 10 hours a day. I taught girls and boys languages and literature. I liked to do it.
My sister worked very hard too. She found work in a German factory. We suffered very much. The German took young boys to other towns and there they were forced to work of munition. They never returned home.
In the meantime they took all the intellectual people such as physicians, lawyers, ingenieurs (engineers) and sent them to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Two weeks afterwards the families of these people received advice telling them about their fathers’, brothers’, and sisters’ deaths. Every day they took new people and sent away. Every day was a searching conducted in another house. We suffered and suffered without interruption.
We changed our dwellings. The winter approached. Now we had new sorrow. We had no wood, no coal. We were frozen the whole winter. We caught a cold very often.
With the beginning of the year 1941 began the great tragedy of our nation. One day we heard a firing in the street. What happened? Nobody knew. Everyone was afraid to look through the window. After some hours i went down and the streets were full of blood. I went to search for my sister. Where is she? Perhaps dead. At last she returned home. I was happy she was alive. When she entered the room I couldn’t recognize her, she looked pale and full of fear. She couldn’t speak and did not want to describe what she had seen.
Every few days this story repeated itself.
On the 10 of June everybody from 12-60 was obliged to register at the working office. The German ordered that every one working with them should be allowed to remain at his place. The people were very irritated. The all streets were full of poor people hurrying to find work.
I was a teacher as i mentioned before. What could I do now? Where to look for work? What could I do with my mother and grandmother? They were not able to do anything. What i felt in this day was impossible to describe.
At last i found work in a factory. My luck was that my sister had found work, too, and we were able to help our family.
The night of the 10 of June. Nobody was sleeping in the whole town. The Jewish office registered the whole night under the control of the SS groups. They were obliged to make a list of people who were unable to work.
Five o’clock in the morning…. I was with my sister in the room. The mother and grand-mother were hidden in our [sic] attick. Suddenly we heard a knock at the door. At the doors were standing two SS men with revolvers in their hands.
The first asked “Why have you not answered at once?”
I couldn’t answer.
After a moment he asked “Where is your family?”
“Nobody is at home” I answered.
The SS man: “Where is your mother hidden? If you will not tell me at once I will shoot you.”
I repeated harshly “I don’t know.”
He got very angry and told me once more: “I will shoot you both at once.”
We had known their methods very well, and we were ready every minute.
He searched in our dwelling but he couldn’t find my mother. After several minutes they went away.
On this day perhaps 20 men visited our houses and every one of them wanted to take my mother but nobody could find her. On this day they killed in the streets 10,000 people and 15,000 were sent away to [sic] Belzec. From this village nobody returned.
This action lasted 8 days with two interruptions. During the free-time the grave diggers were obliged to bury the dead people.
Now the whole people were forced to move in one place, where they made a “ghetto”. After three months was a new action. In the meantime the SS men leaders killed everyday several persons. One of them couldn’t eat without shooting before. Before every meal he wanted to see blood.
On the 15 of September was a beginning of a new action. Every one of us received a sign on his work-card. There were two kinds of signs: 1) The first meant to live, 2) the second meant to die. I and my sister received signs to live. Our mother was hidden in a cellar.
On the 16 of September at 6 o’clock in the morning I was standing and waiting. I waited, for what? What could I expect? I was standing on a great square and the Nazi SS police started to make a selection of all old persons and children, putting them apart, whilst all young and valid persons were also put in a separate place.
Subsequently the children and old persons were shot before our eyes.
Now they took from the remaining young persons every tenth person standing in the turn and shot them too. I was lucky enough to be the eighth person and was thus saved from death from a pure [sic] coindidence.
I had no news from my mother whom I had left hidden in the cellar of my house. I was anxious lest my mother should be brought on the square and shot. We had to wait standing on the square until 7 o’clock in the evening without getting any food, closely guarded by Nazi barbarian soldiers. At 7 o’clock in the evening they brought in mothers having small babies and shot all the babies in the presence of their mothers. At 9 o’clock in the evening they allowed us to go home, where I had a great joy to find my family alive. It was a miracle.
After these scenes had taken place all Jews had to leave their homes and go to new lodgings in the ghetto, where they had to be all concentrated. A barbed wire had to be put around the ghetto and no Jew was allowed to come out of this place. So our martyrdom continued: every day being sadder than the foregoing.
After two months of this ghetto life a new action took place, as a result of which 13 thousand people were murdered and 2 thousand people remained on in the ghetto. It was a miracle that the members of my family remained alive. After this took place, the German declared that no Jew would be allowed to remain alive, and I then decided to take up Aryan papers. One day in November I left my family with the purpose of finding work outside the ghetto with the idea of returning later to take them with me.
I left at 10 o’clock at night. I was accompanied by a young Pole who took me to Lemberg, where we arrived on the evening of the next day at ten o’clock. I had to stay over for a night in a farm while the young Pole went to see what possibilities there were for me. He came back next day at seven o’clock in the morning and he informed me that other Jews having obtained Aryan papers were in the district and they were trying to do something for me.
These people had obtained responsible posts in several factories as Aryans, and they helped me as much as they could. I got a job in a German office as typist. Nobody knew that I was a Jewess. After a few days the owner of the factory told me he wanted to court me as he liked my looks, and I had to run away from him.
I had to change my papers and my name so that he couldn’t find me. I altered my papers and I said that I was married. I then took up work in another factory where I could work without being disturbed.
One night I was sitting at home. I heard somebody knock at the door. It was the German police. I was asked for my papers, showed the, to them. And after examining them they told me I was a Jewess. I was asked to accompany them to the Gestapo. I refused to go saying that I preferred to die on the spot rather than go to the Gestapo. We talked for one hour and I was obliged to accompany them. In the street they took away from me all my valuables, my watch, my money and told me to leave Lemberg immediately. I was left alone in a solitary street. I couldn’t find a bed for the night. I had to change again my papers. I was tired out. I wanted to commit suicide. Next day I found a new home and I had many new troubles.
Coming in one day I was told by the land-lady that the policemen looked for me during the day. I left the house and I went to the place where i received the correspondence from my mother, in which she was telling that we had received foreign naturalization papers which would allow us to go to Palestine. I packed my things and returned home immediately.
When I returned home my mother was in one ghetto and my sister in the other. I had to hide in a cellar because if the German discovered that i had false Aryan papers I could be shot. I kept in hiding in this place for about two months.
Being now of foreign nationality we had to present ourselves regularly to the Gestapo. At one day they informed us that we would be sent to Palestine to be exchanged with German prisoners. On the next day the German police came at our house at 3 o’clock in the night and told us to pack up our things and go to the station. They told us we would go directly to Palestine.
Instead of Palestine they carried us in a prison in the town of Cracow; we were conducted in one of the prison cells where there were already 26 persons. It was a very dark place. We were very depressed and disappointed. We knew already what the Germans were capable of but it was new sadism on their part. The only food they give us was a tiny piece of bread and watery soup. At night we slept on the floor and we heard people crying because they were being beaten. We heard also a good deal of firing. We had always the impression that they will come to take us.
Then they informed us that we were interned and that we should have to wait. We waited and waited. In the day time we could observe how they were making sadistic gymnastics with the people. This made a very bad impression on us.
One day a SS man came suddenly in our cell saying that we have all false papers, and he kept smiling sardonically. Every day we had a new story. Another time they came and told us we were leaving in 5 minutes for Palestine. They took us then to station and put us in the train. We traveled 2 days and we arrived the concentrations camp Belsen Bergen where we had to live for about two years. This was Palestine.
We were lodged in old, damp wooden barracks. Three hundred people in one barrack. It was a terrible life. The only hot food they give us was a watery soup, besides a tiny piece of bread and ridiculously small piece of cheese. A great deal of people were very sick. We pass a very cold winter without wood and without clothing. We were hungry all the time and badly treated by the German. We had to stand up in all weathers for the” call-off”, which was a very tiring thing to do.
Beyond the barbed wires of our camp we observed there was another concentrations camp where other people were obliged to work. They worked very hard. We heard firing at night. We heard also the crying of the people who were beaten. Every day there was 500 deaths in the other camp. We were happy that because we were of foreign nationality we were not beaten. We heard that many people was dying of typhus. We learned that there was a big crematorium in the camp where people were burned. We had such a terrible life for two years. Every few days they told us that we would go home.
And one day after two years they told us to pack up our things and go to the station, and they put us in the train which traveled for a unknown destination. We were seven days in the train traveling very slowly, when we were liberated by the American Army on the 13 of April. It was the luckiest day of my life. At that moment I was bathing in the river when I saw the first American soldier from afar, what a joy. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was sure it was a dream, but still it was true.
A few minutes before the American soldiers arrived we were told that we should have to go on foot over the Elbe River. But the American Army saved us from a sure death, which we will never forget.
I was also sad this day because I remembered how many people of value had died and couldn’t see the liberation, and the fall of the barbarian, Hitler. I shall never forget what I owe to the American Army. I hope I will be able to estimate its right value, what the Americans have done for us. Now, after five years of suffering I shall know to appreciate the more my liberty.”