Posts Tagged ‘Gina Rappaport’

~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~

A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.


July 12.

After a very intense day at Auschwitz-Birkenau, after people in our own tiny group found the names of their murdered families in the Book of Life, we had a debriefing session at the hotel. The consensus is that for one to simply have the will to live, in a place where life was not valued, is an act of defiance and resistance. For one person to care for another under such circumstances, where one is not even considered a person, is extraordinary.

People did these unspeakable acts to other people. But the “monster” myth is just that.  I suppose it is one way of coping with the unthinkable. Let the perpetrators off the hook in a sense, labeling them “monsters”, not humans capable of deeply evil deeds,  and move on. Don’t you think it kind of absolves them of something? They are not human, after all,  so what does one expect of them?

Others may choose not to think about  such things at all. I certainly do not blame them. But to me, to not think about it is to forget, and to forget is as good as saying that it did not happen. But you can’t just talk about the history, the chronology. To really try to understand, one has to know the stories of the individuals who were here. To make it real, and the same goes for all history.


1.4 million people visit here every year. That too presents its own set of challenges.


July 13.

We are back with our guide Gusia. She is taking us to the Krakow Ghetto area, which will include the Oscar Schindler factory, now a museum.

According to his autobiography, “The Pianist” director and child survivor Roman Polanski recalled as a young child, his initial feeling in the Krakow ghetto here was  that “if only one could explain to them that we had done nothing wrong, the Germans would realize that it all was a gigantic misunderstanding.”

If only.

Assembly point, memorial, Krakow Ghetto.

Assembly point, memorial, Krakow Ghetto.


Old Town, in the Jewish Quarter. Gusia.

Old Town, in the Jewish Quarter. Gusia.


Restored Jewish Cemetery. Remuh. Wall constructed with gravestones destroyed by the Nazis.

Restored Jewish Cemetery. Remuh. Wall constructed with gravestones destroyed by the Nazis.

Tempel Synagogue, interior. Restored. Used a stable by Germans. Krakow.

Tempel Synagogue, interior. Restored. Used a stable by Germans. Krakow.


Now I have a story to tell, and this is where it begins, in Krakow, in 1939.

An internet search led a manuscript collector to my site. A five page typewritten document, written on the stationary and letterhead of the Nazi camp commandant at Hilersleben following the liberation of the Farsleben train in April 1945, traces the autobiographical journey of the Jewish girl from Krakow and the horrors, and miracles, that befell her. And yes, we did identify positively the author, who was still alive when the dots were connected.


page-1-compactI begin the story of my sad experiences in this terrible war as follows:

The First of [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.

Krakow was to be one of the only cities not destroyed by the Germans, as it would become the seat of their “General Government” for the administration of the Occupied Territories in the East. It was, of course, to be “Judenrein”.

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. All the goods of Jewish  shops were taken away and carried to Germany.

The population was disarmed and by November, 1939, the intellectuals all arrested. From the USHMM:

“Like elsewhere in the Generalgouvernement, the German occupation authorities required Jews in Krakow city and the surrounding areas to report for forced labor (October 1939), form a Jewish Council (November 1939) identify themselves by means of a white armband with a blue Star of David to be worn on the outer clothing (December 1939), register their property (January 1940-March 1940), and to be concentrated in ghettos (September 1940-March 1941).”

Gina was sent to the nearby Tarnow Ghetto the following August:

In the meantime they took all the intellectual people such as physicians, lawyers, 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 attic. 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  Belzec. From this village nobody returned.

Belzec, Poland. Half a million people murdered on this site. Half a million.

Belzec, Poland. Half a million people murdered on this site. Half a million.

This action lasted 8 days with two interruptions. During the free-time the grave diggers were obliged to bury the dead people.

Martin Spett, who was also liberated with Gina by the Americans at Farsleben on April 13, 1945, was 14 and recalls:

We heard the columns of Jews under German, German escort at night. It was going constantly. They were passing our house because this was already on the outskirts of the city, the cemetery, and they were marching them to the woods behind the city. And as we found out later they they were all shot over there. During the day I looked out through the shingles. My father said I shouldn’t look but, anyway, I was a kid, I was curious. And the roof was overlooking the cemetery and wagons with bodies, dead bodies, were coming in. Groups, they were bringing in groups of Jewish people that had to dig ditches, and the bodies dumped in, and after those Jews that dug the ditches, they were shot also and pushed, by another group that came in after them, into those ditches, and lime was poured over, over the bodies, and the next group covered up those ditches and dug other ditches. They brought in [pause] they brought in [pause] pregnant women, and they didn’t use any bullets. They used bayonets [pause]. The screams of the mothers that their children, they, they tore the children out of their arms [pause]. And the screams of the children I still hear. (USHMM)

Gina continues:

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  coincidence.
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.

Gina as photogrpahed by her liberator George C. Gross, Sat. morning, April 14th, 1945. Farsleben, Germany.

Gina as photographed by her liberator George C. Gross, Sat. morning, April 14th, 1945. Farsleben, Germany.

Gina would survive, as would Martin, and I will continue her story as I visit the sites associated with her in the next post.

From the USHMM:

“The Germans decided to destroy the Tarnow ghetto in September 1943. The surviving 10,000 Jews were deported, 7,000 of them to Auschwitz and 3,000 to the Plaszow concentration camp in Krakow. In late 1943, Tarnow was declared “free of Jews” (Judenrein). By the end of the war, the overwhelming majority of Tarnow Jews had been murdered by the Germans. Although some 700 Jews returned to the city after liberation, virtually all of them soon left to escape local antisemitism.”

Belzec, Poland. Half a million people murdered on this site.

Belzec, Poland. Half a million people murdered on this site.

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