January 17, 2015
70 YEARS AGO TODAY, 17 January 1945.
After five years of hiding and running and going in daily fear for my life, I found myself just outside Warsaw, together with my elder sister Fela. We were passing for non-Jews with false identities. My sister went by the name Walerja Matera and I was Stefan Wojs. A few months earlier we had been driven out of the capital during the inferno of the Warsaw Uprising. This was a year after the epic Ghetto Revolt. Miraculously, we had managed to locate an abandoned shack where we took shelter. My kindly sister also gave shelter to two desperate young Jewish women, burdened by Semitic features. This was a sure sentence of death for anyone trying to pass for a non-Jew in Poland. Their presence in the shack further endangered our lives, so they remained hidden at all times. As a young ragamuffin, I was able to move about freely, so it fell on me to go on daily forays to try and procure food by any means. During autumn it wasn’t too difficult to pilfer from garden patches and orchards. But by this time we were in the full grip of winter and our stock was depleting by the day with only sugar-beets to fill an empty stomach and deeply worried about surviving the harsh winter. All we could do was chalk up the days, dreaming of liberation that never seemed to come, although we were aware that the Russians were not too far away. There had been no action along the Vistula front for more than five months and we feared that the Soviet army had been bled white.
Wednesday 17 January 1945, was a dull and foggy day, but before that dismal day would come to pass, it would turn into the most glittering and unforgettable day without the sun ever breaking through the leaden skies. Deliverance, when it finally came, was sudden. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I first heard the big Russian guns open up and getting closer with every hour. This signalled that the Soviet-giant had not been slain after all, he had simply stirred from his slumber and once more on the move. The Russians are coming! we kept repeating, jumping up and down. Against my sister’s advice, I ran out into the countryside adjacent to the main road that led to Warsaw. With hindsight, it was a foolhardy thing to do, but I was too buoyed up to listen to anyone. As there was no shooting in our area, I decided to explore further. By putting my ear to the ground, I could hear the faint clatter of tank tracks, so I quickly tumbled down a snowy ditch and see how things develop. Scanning the horizon, I saw a tank suddenly appear from behind a clump of trees, followed by another, then another. As the tanks trundled along, I fully expected to see the familiar black Teutonic Cross but to my surprise, I could pick out through the freezing mist the Red Star markings on the side of the turrets. I could scarcely believe my eyes as I let out the cry: Russian tanks! I’m Free! I’m Free!
Significantly, this unforgettable day coincided with my sister’s 21st birthday. What a wonderful birthday present this was for my devoted sister; the gift of freedom and a life reborn, on her very birthday!
Here is one more short excerpt from my acclaimed wartime Memoir "Gone to Pitchipoi" (An imaginary far-away place in ghetto jargon). During the spring of 1944, I was sheltered by a kindly Christian lady in a suburb of Warsaw, armed with a certificate of baptism. And my elder sister (see photo) lived and worked in central Warsaw, passing for a non-Jew.
..."As a covert Jew moving about the 'Aryan' streets of Warsaw, one lived on the edge of the precipice; in constant fear of betrayal and at the mercy of extortionists and informers. Called shmaltzovniks, from the Polish word szmalec, grease. These scoundrels stalked their prey on the streets of the capital, sometimes operating in gangs of two or more, hunting down people of Jewish appearance to blackmail them, or even turn them in to the Gestapo. Every day brought with it new threats and dangers. One took a terrible risk venturing outdoors, dreading the tap on the shoulder and when one reached the relative safety of the home, if one had a home to go to, there was the
constant worry of having been followed, or the ever-present fear of denunciation by a
neighbour, followed by a knock at the door. The stress was relentless.
-- GOING HOME AT LAST!
Sixty-eight years ago today, 125 bewildered and traumatized child survivors below the age of 15, docked at Tower Bridge Pier. We had earlier sailed from the Baltic seaport of Gdynia on a Swedish freighter, the ss Ragne (see below). We were accompanied by the legendary London Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld whom we dubbed our own Scarlet Pimpernel! During the voyage and after, thegood rabbi tried his best to restore our faith in humanity. Great Britain afforded us shelter for which the children will remain eternally grateful. This was at a time when the country of our birth, Poland, didn't want us, and where are lives remained fraught with danger even though the war had ended. Over the years, we proved an asset to our adoptive countries, whether here, or in the other countries they ultimately settled in, mostly the US and Israel.
My wife Michele and I are now busy de-cluttering and packing. With our two London grandchildren grown up, it is now time to go Home. England has been good to us in the past but regrettably it's no longer the country I once knew and the only place where we feel truly at home now is Israel.