By Nathan Gutman
The summer of 1939 passed like most of the summers. School vacation was almost over and except for the annual pilgrimage to the mountains, nothing exciting or unusual was happening. No one was paying much attention to the rumors of war. There were a few days of summer vacation left so mother decided to visit her sister, aunt Stefa, in Krakow. Krakow was only an hour’s train ride from our home in Katowice, so we packed a small suitcase with some necessities and off we went.
Aunt Stefa was thrilled to see us. She lived in the city in a small apartment. Those were beautiful late summer days. We slept with the windows wide open. The cool night air felt wonderfully crisp. One night, just before dawn, I awoke to the whining of airplane engines. Not the steady grind of an occasional passing but the penetrating whining sound of diving and climbing. There were loud, thunderous explosions. I jumped out of bed and saw them through the window. They were barely noticeable but I saw them, three or four or maybe five. I could not tell. One by one they dove over the roofs of still sleeping city, each dive followed by an explosion and a small cloud of smoke. Within a few minutes slowly, a siren started to whine. Then another and another, till their frightening cacophony completely filled the air. Nazi Germany had attacked Poland. The city woke up to the start of World War Two. It was Friday, September 1, 1939.
Trains were disrupted. We could not return home. We were stranded in Krakow. A few days later father and Albert, our chauffeur, arrived in the Daimler. The Germans quickly converged on Krakow from both west and south. Most of the Jewish population, somewhat but not fully aware of what happened to Jews in Germany, tried to flee east towards the Russian border. So did we. We packed as much as we could into the box-like Daimler and started east towards Lublin. Normally, the two hundred and fifty or so kilometers would have been a short journey. But it seemed like the whole city was on the road. A faint sound of airplanes came from the sky behind us. At first, there were just two small, silver specs. They quickly caught up with us and made a few passes above our heads. They looked so harmless, some of us waved. They made a few more passes then dove and opened fire on the unsuspecting column of refugees. From everywhere screams of the wounded rose to the sky. Father quickly threw me from the car into the roadside ditch and jumped on top of me almost smothering me with his body. The two planes made a few more passes and disappeared north. This was our first real encounter with the war.
Father knew that we would not be able to outrun the Germans. He decided to go back towards Krakow. We abandoned the Daimler laying helplessly in the ditch. Taking whatever we believed we could carry we started back to Krakow on foot. Some still tried to press east but most turned back towards Krakow. We walked several days till we came to the small village of Wieliczka, about fourteen kilometers west of Krakow. Father knew a farmer there who, for a sum of money, agreed to shelter us in his house. He gave us one very small room. It had no running water, no toilets. Water was brought from a well outside. There was an outhouse in the back. There was a small iron stove in the corner, a old bucket with some coal in it, one high bed and a small, rickety table next to it. We spent our evenings clustered around a small kerosene lamp speculating when the war would end and what might happen next.
Every morning father disappeared into the city. He came back, usually just before dark and like a magician pulled out from under his coat, sometimes a small chicken, a chunk of bread or a few raw potatoes. I did not know where all that came from. But it was obvious that if anyone could outsmart the Germans he could. Sometimes he would come back with a relative or two. One day he came back with aunt Stefa and grandmother. The small room became crowded. There were eight of us here now. There was grandmother from mother’s side, aunt Stefa, uncle Jacob, his wife, their little girl and the three of us.
During the day all the adults were going out to do different chores. I, then in my early teens, stayed with my grandmother. Grandmother was in her late seventies. A small, frail woman always dressed in her, ankle long, black skirt and a sparkling, white blouse. Always with the ever present shitel. Grandmother was devotedly religious. She constantly prayed and chanted verses in a language I did not understand. She lit Shabbat candles making each Friday a special day. She firmly believed that in the end God would save us from all evil. She never gave up hope.
Her advanced age did not stop her from cleaning, cooking and mending for all of us. Always busy doing something; she never sat down to rest. I specifically remember, how in those days of scarcity, when there was no flour to bake bread she made potato bread. It was sticky, it was heavy, but hunger made its taste heavenly.
From her I learned how to convert things that did not even look edible into wonderfully satisfying meals. Her ingenuity seemed limitless. I learned from her to mend socks and patch holes in my pants. While she cooked and cleaned, I fetched buckets of water from the well outside or was digging up potatoes in the nearby field. She also taught me to recite the Shmah. In the horror years yet to come the Shmah became my life-saving mantra. She taught me basic survival skills, which I am sure, in the end saved my life.
My thirteenth birthday was coming up and just like every Jewish boy I looked forward to my Bar Mitzvah. Grandmother took upon herself to teach me our religion and told me about our ancient traditions. I recited after her and memorized the prayers. She prepared me for the passing from boyhood into adulthood, which among other things meant fasting on Yom Kippur. But, it was a Bar Mitzvah that never was.
Every day new Nazi edicts were being announced. Jews were not permitted to do this, and not permitted to do that. Jews must wear a yellow star of David. Jews cannot walk on the sidewalks. On and on. The list of restrictions was getting longer and longer.
Jewish children were not permitted to attend schools. A Jewish woman named Idzia Kornfeld, a former school teacher, defied the German edict and risking execution organized a small underground class in her cellar. I was in that class.
We heard that in Krakow the Jews were being herded into a small dilapidated area of the city declared as the Jewish ghetto. All Jews had to move out of their homes and into the ghetto. Only a few personal belongings were permitted.
Life in the Wieliczka hideout became very difficult. The Germans swept through the village every few days to drag out any Jews they could find. Helping and hiding Jews became a crime punishable by death. The farmer, our host, had become very frightened. He insisted that we all leave, but father convinced him to agree to hide just me. With my light, blond hair and blue eyes, I could pass for a non Jew. He could tell his neighbors that I was his nephew from a distant village so that they would not inform on him. Father was going to pick me up after the war.
On August 27, 1942 almost all Jews of Wieliczka were assembled at the local railroad station and taken away.
My whole family left. For a few weeks I lived with the farmer and his family helping with the daily chores. I fetched water from the well, collected eggs from the chickens or weeded the vegetable patch. Most of the time, though, I tried to stay out of sight.
One day the Germans came to Wieliczka and searched door to door looking for Jews. The farmer put me in the barn and covered me with a pile of hay. They did not find me, but after they left we knew that we had to come up with a more secure hiding place.
In one corner of the house we lifted a few floor planks. Underneath, next to the foundation wall, we dug a small hole. The hole was just barely large enough for me to squeeze in. We made a small opening for air. Every time the Germans came to look for Jews, the farmer would lift out a plank, let me crawl in into the hole and put it back in place.
The Germans were not satisfied that there were no Jews left in the village. They were making surprise raids day or night and started using dogs to find Jewish hideouts. The farmer kept me now in the hole for days at a time, daring to let me out only at night. When I had spent in the hole an entire three week period, day and night, the farmer gave up and told me that he could no longer hide me. I had to leave.
One crisp, quiet night he pulled me out from the hole, gave me a chunk of bread and scribbled, on a small piece of brown paper, an address in the Krakow ghetto where supposedly I could find my parents. In the dark of the night he took me to the nearby railroad tracks and told me to walk along them till I reached the city. I was supposed to pretend that I was a poor Polish boy collecting pieces of coal which fell off the trains. I don’t know why he did that. It was either fear or greed. Many of the Poles in Wieliczka helped the Nazis to find Jewish hideouts. As soon as the Jews were forced out many locals immediately moved in and looted the properties abandoned by their Jewish neighbors. It was incomprehensible how these seemingly peaceful, God fearing and church going people so quickly turned into a lowly informants and greedy looters. The Germans supported the looting calling it the “sequestration”. But then, there are still many things from that era that defy any rational explanation.
It took five full days to walk the ten or so kilometers to the city. I knew that I could trust no one. I walked for a few hours by night hiding in the fields during the days. On the fifth day I sneaked through the streets of Krakow into the ghetto section and miraculously located my parents. For the next few months we were united again. In October of 1942, while father and I were at “work” my mother was deported to the Belzec extermination camp. She was never seen or heard of again. My father and I were deported the infamous camp in Plaszow. From there it was to Mauthausen, where I was separated from my father. My father was sent to the Gusen camp where he died on February 3, 1945. I was sent to St. Valentin, then back to Mauthausen and then the war ended.
By the way, the Polish government never made any real attempts to compensate Jewish survivors or rightful heirs for the properties looted from Jews during the war. Before the war there were about three and half million Jews in Poland. They left behind everything they owned and all that went to looters.
Picture of kids from a classroom in Wieliczka 02-17-42
A childhood friend of mine Romek Leaton (Licht) visited Wieliczka, and miraculously found this photo of us taken in February 17, 1942. Romek says it was taken on hisbirthday. As told by Romek, standing from left to right are:
Osi, who refused to leave his mother and sister Edith. On August 27, 1942 went with them on the train to the Belzec death camp where they all perished. Lulek Friedman, who survived the war and died of cancer in Paris in 1988. Next is Uri Shmueli (Szmulewicz). Myself – I was about fourteen at the time. What’s partially visible behind my head is a small bird cage with Romek’s pet canary. The photo was taken in Romek’s home. Sitting are: Alisia Kleinberger – whom the Germans found hiding with her mother and brother Maciek in Wieliczka in August 1944. They took them to the Plaszow camp and shot them there. Rita – we don’t know when and were she perished. The photo was taken by Natan (then Sandek) Kleinberger.
One of our friends from those years, not shown on this photo was Bernas Grunhaut who survived St. Valentin and ended up in Israel. In 1992 he decided to go back to his native Krakow. He arrived to Warsaw and died of a heart attack at the Warsaw train station before ever reaching his hometown. As matter of fact I know of several people who got heart attacks when visiting their home towns in Poland. Strange.
Nathan Gutman, was born in Katowice, on July 24, 1927. He was in the ghetto of Krakow, and camps of Plaszow (Poland), St. Valentin and Mauthausen (Austria). After liberation the Jewish Brigade smuggled him to southern Italy where he joined the Irgun Zvai Leumi. He arrived to Israel in June 1948 as a crew member of the ship Altalena. He volunteered to the Israeli Navy. After the discharge he worked as a welder, tool and die maker, superintendent of a machine shop and a machine shop owner. In 1961 he was admitted to the University of Bar-Ilan to major in physics and mathematics. In 1963 he was admitted to the College of Engineering at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia. He graduated in 1966. At the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he completed requirements towards an advanced degree in management. He lectured at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute branch in Hartford. He holds eleven U.S. and foreign patents on inventions related to the heavy construction industry and Diesel engine controls.
Nathan Gutman, a Holocaust survivor, has written fiction and nonfiction short stories about the Holocaust, lives with his wife in Simsbury, Connecticut. They have three children and thirteen grandchildren.
Voices of Hope was recently given permission to share articles written from Holocaust Survivor Nathan Gutman, of Simsbury, CT. During the Holocaust he was in the ghetto of Krakow, and camps of Plaszow (Poland), St. Valentin and Mauthausen (Austria).