I was only four years old when World War II began, with the German invasion of Poland. My parents, baby sister, and I lived in a small village of Nowy Targ, Poland, a town nested in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, not far from Krakow. We were part of a large extended Jewish family whose heritage in Poland goes back many generations. We shared closeness and good times together. We observed holidays, traditions, and rituals. My father and grandfather owned a large hardware business, where they sold everything from farm equipment and building supplies to household items. People from surrounding villages came to shop at the family store. Before the war, anti-Semitism occasionally burst out - insulting remarks shouted, rocks thrown, pickets with anti-Jewish slogans in front of Jewish-owned businesses. For the most part, however, Jews and Christians got along as long as Jews maintained their boundaries.
I cherish the memories of those early years. These memories became the foundation and strength for my survival when I was separated from my family. As the first grandchild in the family, named after my great grandmother, Gustawa, I was much pampered and loved. With my pale blond hair, green eyes, and upturned nose, I looked like the typical “Aryan” child. Largely because of my appearance, my life was spared.
During the first few days of the war, my father and his brothers joined the Polish army to fight the Germans. My mother, baby sister, and I (I was 4) went to stay with my maternal grandparents in the village of Wadowice. Realizing the imminent danger, my grandfather put us on a horse-drawn wagon, and we joined a moving caravan heading east toward Russia. There was incredible fear, uncertainty, and confusion. A sea of humanity was walking, running, trying to escape on bicycles, wagons, trucks, and horses. German planes overhead strafed the crowd, people suddenly dropped to the ground dead, and planes on fire fell out of the sky. We hid in ditches by day, traveled at night. When bridges were bombarded out, we had to cross rivers. After weeks on the road, we arrived near Lvov, a city on the Polish-Russian border.
The Polish army was no match for the Germans and within a few days surrendered. My father did not know where we were. He took the only escape route that, lucky for us, was toward Lvov, and was able to find us through a newspaper ad. Life in Russia was very difficult. My little sister, only 18 months old, became critically ill with diphtheria and died because we could not get any medicine for her. As Polish nationals, my parents decided they would be safer fleeing Russia and returning to Poland- a grave mistake. As soon as we arrived home, we were rounded up with all of the other Jews and forced to move to the ghetto. The conditions were deplorable, and our family suffered daily indignities. One time, I recall, seeing a sign reading “kosher meat” pinned to the coats of two elderly Jewish men who were hanged in the town square.
When news spread that the ghetto was to be liquidated, my father planned our escape. He put us on a train bound for Krakow and then hid in a Polish friend’s attic until he was able to join us. Not long after, we learned that the Jews in this town, too, were to be liquidated. Once again we fled in the middle of the night. With no place to go, we hid in potato fields. The Polish police, who were collaborating with the Nazis, caught us, beat us with clubs, and returned us to the village. The next day my parents made an agonizing decision: to give their remaining child away. One of my cousins’ nursemaids agreed to take me for a short time. I left with her by train for Krakow. The following day, my parents and thousands of others were ordered to report to the stadium. They painfully separated, hoping to maximize the chance of at least one of them surviving. My mother was sent to the left. She was taken to the forest on the outskirts of town and brutally shot to death. My father was sent to the right. He was taken to the Krakow ghetto and then to the Plaszow concentration camp.
Staying with the Polish woman, I had many frightening experiences. Once, a Gestapo agent came, looking for Jews in hiding. After ransacking the apartment, he looked at me, held my blond pigtail in his fingers, and left. I still remember his chilling smile and black leather knee-high boots clicking as he descended the stairs.
My father, who was still in the ghetto, knew my stay with the Polish woman had to be temporary. He managed to buy the birth certificate of a deceased Polish girl for me from a Catholic priest, and I became that girl. I had a new identity, a new name: Krystyna Antoszkiewicz. He then contacted a cousin with false Polish papers who agreed to take me. My cousin was very cruel to me, often leaving me alone all day, locked out of her apartment with no food or proper clothing.
One day my cousin went to meet her Polish boyfriend in a Krakow cafe. She instructed me to stay in the church across the street. Though I waited for hours, she did not return. I saw that the street was cordoned off. The Gestapo had arrested everyone in the cafe. It was May 21, 1943. There I was, seven years old, walking the streets and crying, completely bewildered and terrified, not knowing what to do. I was alone in the world. An older woman walking by asked me what the matter was. Seeing that I looked like a typical Aryan child with my blond hair, blue eyes, and upturned nose, she placed me under her large cape and quickly whisked me into the cafe building. She took me upstairs to her friend, Alicja Golob. I answered her questions with a well-rehearsed response: “I come from Warsaw, my parents were killed in a bombing raid; my father was an officer in the Polish army.” Because it was too dangerous to remain in that apartment, Alicja’s son, Stashek, took me 4 kilometers to a farm owned by the Catholic Church. The people there treated me like family and asked no questions.
One day right after slaughtering a pig - a criminal offense punishable by death - we were alerted that the Gestapo was on the way. We quickly cleaned up and hid the evidence in the attic. When the Gestapo came, I am told that I said, “Give them vodka,” and started to sing and dance in order to distract them. They were amused. They, laughed, joked and left.
I remained with this Polish family until the end of the war when my cousin’s father came for me. I was sad to leave. The family wanted to keep me but felt that it would be ethically and morally wrong. I was placed in a refugee center with other malnourished, frightened Jewish children until Lena Kuchler, a wonderful women looking for her family, found us and made a commitment to do something with our broken lives. Against great odds, she started two orphanages and became our “mother”.
When Lena Kucher realized that the extreme antisemitism in Poland threatened their lives, she miraculously smuggled 100 of her orphans to Israel. I was one of the very few lucky ones who stayed in Poland because my father had survived. When I first saw him after two and a half years, I did not recognize him and was terribly frightened. He weighed 80 lbs. and looked like a skeleton. I too was malnourished and had a problem walking. My father decided to rent a room near the orphanage while he recuperated and we become reacquainted. I soon agreed to return with him to my grandparents’ house. I was the only Jewish child from that town to survive. Our lives were threatened daily. Several of my father’s friends were murdered after the war. We found notes posted on our door saying, “Hitler did not complete the job. We will kill you.” The police chief told us that he could do nothing to help us, but gave my father a gun which he kept under his pillow when he slept. It did not take us long to realize that we had no future in Poland. We came to the United States in March 1947.
My rescuers were unusual, special people. They did not stop to analyze their actions, did not waiver, hesitate, or even think about the tragedy that could result from their acts. Although they knew they were risking their own lives, they simply responded to the cries of an abandoned child. They did not care who I was or what religious background I came from. Their motive was pure and simple: to save a child. My rescuers are the genuine heroes. They asked for nothing and gave everything.