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Touched by an Angel

A Jewish child from Oświęcim and his family’s harrowing survival of the Nazi occupation

by
Henryk Schönker
April 16, 2021
Photo: Robert Sotwin; Graphics: Robert Manowski
Children from the Polish city of Oświęcim acting in ‘The Touch of an Angel’ (2015) directed by Marek T. Pawłowski, Zoyda Art ProductionPhoto: Robert Sotwin; Graphics: Robert Manowski
Photo: Robert Sotwin; Graphics: Robert Manowski
Children from the Polish city of Oświęcim acting in ‘The Touch of an Angel’ (2015) directed by Marek T. Pawłowski, Zoyda Art ProductionPhoto: Robert Sotwin; Graphics: Robert Manowski
In this excerpt from ‘The Touch of an Angel,’ Henryk and his family have just arrived in the town of Tarnów by train after surviving a massive roundup operation and massacre of Jews in Wieliczka between 27 and 29 August 1942.
In this excerpt from ‘The Touch of an Angel,’ Henryk and his family have just arrived in the town of Tarnów by train after surviving a massive roundup operation and massacre of Jews in Wieliczka between 27 and 29 August 1942.

We had to reach the ghetto as quickly as possible because while we were on the Aryan side, without any identification documents, we were in constant danger. At any moment we could be recognized as Jews and handed over to the Germans.

My father knew the way to the ghetto, and at first we thought we just needed to cross a few streets to get there. There were a lot of people on the streets, and it didn’t appear as if anyone was paying attention to us. None of us had typical Jewish facial features, and we were walking at the same pace as everyone else, trying not to show any anxiety. My parents were talking to each other in Polish and smiling at each other. They gave the impression of a married couple out for a walk with their children.

Suddenly we heard someone say, “Just a moment.” A policeman in a navy-blue uniform was standing in front of us. He was short and thin with a pale face on which there was the flicker of a smile.

“Are you just taking a stroll, or are you headed somewhere?” he asked politely.

“A stroll,” answered my father.

The policeman’s smile became slightly ironic, but his voice was still polite.

“Since when do Jews go for strolls on the Aryan side?”

My parents understood we’d been recognized, and there was no point pretending to be non-Jews. Without Aryan documents, we didn’t have a chance.

My father answered him, “Please let us go because we’ve just had some very difficult days. God will repay you.”

“I’ll gladly do it, but first you have to buy yourselves from me.”

“We would do that, but we don’t have any money,” my father replied helplessly.

“In that case, I have to take you to the gestapo because it’s my duty. Are you going to pay me or not?”

“We have no money,” repeated my father.

“Well, let’s go to the gestapo, then,” answered the policeman stubbornly.

Just then my father remembered his friend who lived in Tarnów, Fessel, and told the policeman he would pay for us.

“Fessel? The one who owns the Papapol factory?”

“Yes, let’s go to Papapol—maybe I can get some money from him.”

The policeman agreed, and we started walking together in a different direction. We reached Fessel’s factory. The policeman stood with my mother, Lusia, and me in the doorway of a building while my father continued onward to the factory. I prayed silently for Fessel to be there, for him to have some money, and for him to be willing to give it to my father.

We waited silently. The policeman was acting the most nervous. He lit a cigarette and stared tensely at the factory’s entrance. We waited a very long time, which seemed to me like a good sign. Suddenly my father appeared in the factory’s gateway and quickly approached us. Breathless, he stood in front of the policeman and handed him a thick envelope. The policeman opened it and ran his fingers over the money.

“Good,” he said. “You can go on your way.”

My father took several more banknotes out of his pocket.

“I’ll give you this, too, if you take us to the ghetto, because someone else might recognize us as Jews.”

The policeman took the money.

“You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. Follow me.”

On the way, my father asked him how he’d known we were Jews. The policeman smiled and said it hadn’t been hard at all. He’d watched us all the way from the train station, and everything had indicated to him that we were Jews.

“What, for example?”

“Everything. You Jews walk differently and talk to each other differently. You just behave differently, in general. Your children had scared expressions on their faces and kept looking behind them. You and your wife kept glancing sideways. But, above all—my intuition can detect a Jew from a hundred meters.”

He told us he would take us to the ghetto’s side entrance rather than the main gateway because it was less dangerous there. SS men and Jewish policemen stood at the main gateway all day and night, while at the side entrance it was mostly just the latter. We would have to enter the ghetto when there weren’t any Germans near it.

We crossed several streets and saw the side entrance to the ghetto and a guard booth next to it. We stood in the doorway of a nearby house and observed the spot. Several people went in and out of the ghetto, but there were no Germans in sight.

After a while the policeman said, “Let’s go.” He led us to the entrance. Only one Jewish policeman was standing there in a cap with a yellow band. We approached him, and the Polish policeman told him we were supposed to enter the ghetto.

A small window in the guard booth opened and an SS man’s face appeared in it. He pointed at us and asked, “Wer sind die?” (Who are they?)

Our policeman displayed presence of mind and responded in Polish, “They’ve been inspected and are to enter the ghetto.”

The Jewish policeman translated this for the SS man and waited for his decision, but the latter just waved his hand.

“Rein!” (Enter!)

The Polish policeman turned and left us without a word. A moment later we found ourselves inside the ghetto.

Fessel had given my father the address of one of his friends in the ghetto. We were supposed to go to him and tell him Fessel had sent us. His friend’s name was Eliahu Lehrhaupt, and he was the deputy chairman of the Judenrat. He lived at 4 Lwowska Street.

The ghetto made a very miserable impression on us. All the narrow streets and alleys we passed through were filled with poverty. People were emaciated and badly dressed, sneaking along the walls of buildings as if they might face mortal danger at any moment. I didn’t yet understand why, but I soon found out.

As we walked along the streets of the ghetto, our spirits grew very heavy. We asked for directions several times and eventually found the apartment building at 4 Lwowska Street. This street turned out to be outside the ghetto. The building’s main entrance door was always locked, while the building itself was inside the ghetto and could be entered through a small side door from another street, a narrow passageway, and then a large courtyard. There was a staircase next to the narrow passageway and two other staircases that could be accessed from the courtyard. It was a large three-story apartment building with many tenants.

The Lehrhaupt family lived in their own prewar apartment on one of the upper floors. They welcomed us very warmly. They were close friends of Fessel’s, and it was clear they had a lot of respect for him. They gave us a room, and Mrs. Lehrhaupt prepared a meal for us. We were very hungry and tired.

After eating, we went straight to sleep—my parents lay next to each other on a narrow bed, and Lusia and I slept on blankets spread on the floor. We slept like the dead until evening, when Mrs. Lehrhaupt and her son, a young man about twenty years old, woke us for supper. I don’t remember the son’s name, but we immediately felt that he wanted to help us. Supper was meager: soup, a slice of bread thinly spread with margarine, and a black, dishwater-like liquid instead of coffee. Mrs. Lehrhaupt brought hot water mixed with milk from the kitchen for Lusia.

While we ate, Mr. Lehrhaupt told us the ghetto had existed for only two months and that everyone in it was suffering from extreme poverty. All people capable of working were officially employed in factories and workshops run by Germans outside the ghetto. Unfortunately, nobody knew how long these factories and workshops would continue to exist, since the hatred of Jews was growing and had already reached a level of total degradation. Nobody knew what else was going to happen here.

People in the ghetto were terrified. SS and gestapo officers came here nearly every day, shooting at people for no reason at all. The worst ones were Rommelman and Grunoff. Every time they appeared in the ghetto, several people were killed. Sometimes they came with their girlfriends. They’d keep one arm around their girlfriend and shoot at people with the other, as if they were bird hunting. They entertained themselves with murder. When the Jewish community complained about this, the officers replied that during the day the ghetto was supposed to be empty because everyone should be at work. In June 1942, there were two massive roundup operations during which thousands of Jews were taken away—rumors were circulating that they’d been taken to Bełżec and killed there. Nobody knew if the Germans were about to transport people from the ghetto again. For now, everyone was living from day to day, thanking God for each day that passed peacefully.

These descriptions were so distressing that we didn’t immediately comprehend them. Our consciousness simply refused to accept them. It was difficult for us to come to terms with the fact that we found ourselves in such a terrible place.

Mr. Lehrhaupt explained to us that we were now living in this ghetto illegally, so it would be impossible for my parents to be assigned work in a factory or workshop. He warned us to be very careful and not walk in the streets. He promised he would try to obtain food ration cards for us so we wouldn’t starve and would also search for somewhere for us to live. It wouldn’t be easy because the ghetto was already very overcrowded.

And so it was clear to us that our situation had drastically worsened. At night, none of us could sleep except Lusia. I envied her blissful ignorance.

We didn’t leave the Lehrhaupts’ apartment at all during our first days there. Our hosts were very kind to us, especially their son, who did his best to help us—he found clothing for us and brought a rag doll for Lusia. Mr. Lehrhaupt spent nearly all day at the office of the Judenrat. After a few days, he told us there might be a room for us but it would take a while to arrange it, and he wasn’t sure if he would manage to get the room since there were many other people waiting for it.

It was the beginning of September 1942. I realized that for normal children my age, the summer vacation was over and they were already going back to school. I hadn’t gone to school for three years and missed it terribly. I fantasized about what it would be like after the war when I’d be able to attend school again.

At the end of the first week of September, a strange anxiety took hold of the Lehrhaupt family. They told us that people who’d been working in certain factories had received an order to stay in the ghetto and not go to work. This was a bad sign; people feared the worst. In the evening, Mr. Lehrhaupt told us the ghetto was surrounded by German soldiers, and a new roundup operation was probably about to begin.

In the apartment building at 4 Lwowska Street, bunkers were prepared for everyone who hadn’t gone to work. There were many people in the building who normally worked in factories, and it wasn’t clear if there was enough space for everyone in the bunkers. Mr. Lehrhaupt told us that when the time came, we should hide with the neighbors from our floor.

On the morning of September 10, we were woken up and told that we should hide. We went out onto the staircase, which was already full of people. Some were going down the stairs; others were going up. A man came up to us and asked, “Are you the ones staying with Mr. Lehrhaupt?” My father nodded, and the man told us to follow him. We hurried down the stairs.

It was quite dark in the staircase because there was only one light bulb lit on the top floor. People were pushing each other. Muffled screams could be heard.

Children were crying, and everyone was rushing. There were many old people who were having trouble walking. My mother was carrying Lusia even though she’d been able to walk on her own for a long time already. My father tried to help, but my mother didn’t want to give Lusia to him; she held her tightly to her chest, as if this would ensure her survival.

A strange, intense odor struck me. The man leading us explained that Lysol, a disinfectant, had been poured throughout the entire building because everyone feared the Germans would come with dogs, and Lysol caused dogs to lose their sense of smell.

We entered the courtyard and passed through another hallway, then descended to the cellar. In the cellar there was a hole in the ground into which people were disappearing one by one. We were pulled into the hole, too. We found ourselves in a low, narrow, foul-smelling space beneath the cellar. About a dozen people were already sitting there, including small children. I remember them the most vividly because never before had I seen such terrified expressions on children’s faces.

After a while, we heard shouting from various directions: “That’s all! That’s all! We can’t let anyone else in, or we’ll all suffocate!” Despite this, several more people entered, and the trapdoor was closed.

A kerosene lantern was lit, but someone immediately shouted, “Put out the lamp!” We found ourselves in total darkness. There was a trapdoor that we were supposed to open so air could enter, but nobody knew where it was. Someone said that it was probably open already, since a slight draft could be felt.

Finally, there was complete silence. From time to time, children started crying, but their mothers calmed them immediately. Lusia held my hand with both of her hands, squeezing it tightly. We sat like this, crammed in this small space and leaning against each other, for about two hours. The lack of air became increasingly unbearable, and finally a decision was made to open the entrance trapdoor slightly. It wasn’t possible to do this yet, however, because something had been placed on top of it to conceal it. After a while, several people fainted.

I sank into a deep lethargy and began to hallucinate. I thought I was once again lying sick in my bed in Wieliczka. I sought the light that I’d seen then, but I was surrounded only by darkness. Lusia stopped squeezing my hand, and every so often I heard her whisper, “Mommy, I love you.” I don’t know how long this lasted because I was no longer aware of what was happening to me.

Suddenly someone near me hit the entrance trapdoor. We heard rustling sounds above us, and the trapdoor opened. Someone asked, “How are you all doing down there?” It was an Ordnungsdienst (a Jewish policeman) who lived on the top floor of the building. He told us where the trapdoor was through which we could let more air enter, and he said several people should come out of the bunker, and he would lead them to another spot.

Nobody volunteered. Only my mother agreed to leave because Lusia and I were nearly suffocating. Some people helped us climb out; the policeman closed the entrance to the bunker and slid two blocks of wood over the trapdoor. He told us to follow him quickly. He said the Germans hadn’t come to this building yet but could appear at any moment.

He led us into an apartment and pushed aside a chest of drawers that was against a wall in one of the rooms. He lifted the wallpaper at the bottom edge; under it, right near the floor, there was a nearly invisible trapdoor. He opened it, and a narrow gap appeared. He told us to go inside. We crawled into the new hiding place.

We found ourselves in a tiny space where six people were already sitting. There wasn’t enough room for all of us. I sat on my father’s lap and Lusia on my mother’s lap. There was a bit of light because the space had a tiny window and—most importantly—there was enough air. I was no longer hallucinating and began to breathe freely. I felt my consciousness becoming increasingly acute—even more acute than usual.

A middle-aged man sitting next to my mother winced with pain every now and then. Seeing my mother’s questioning looks, he whispered, “It’s a stomach ulcer.”

People on all sides reprimanded him, also in a whisper: “Shhhh … quiet …” I felt like I was also starting to have pains in my stomach. I began to wince, too, and my mother was startled; she cast me questioning looks. I couldn’t answer her because I didn’t want people to get mad at me.

Lusia saved me. Hearing her whisper quietly, once again, “Mama, I love you,” I realized that I also loved my mother very much. My heart overflowed with love for her, and at that very moment my stomach stopped hurting. The man next to us also seemed to feel better and smiled at me.

After a while, we heard soldiers’ boots walking quickly, loud commands, and shouts. Germans walked through this apartment but didn’t search it. We all sat motionless, like mummies. We even held our breath. It didn’t last long; soon there was complete silence again. Only about an hour later did we allow ourselves the luxury of shifting our positions.

There was some bread and water in the hiding space. Someone divided up the bread and poured water into two cups. We took turns drinking and chewed on some bread, more to pass the time than from hunger. We were all so agitated that we didn’t even feel hungry. This is how the entire day passed for us. In the evening, someone opened the trapdoor and told us we could come out because the roundup had ended. We crawled out of the hiding space and went down to the courtyard.

I remember September 10, 1942, in the Tarnów ghetto as one of the most dreadful days of my life. Not because of what we experienced while hiding but because of what happened later in the building’s courtyard. Dantean scenes unfolded there. People returned from their work in factories and workshops and found their children, mothers, fathers, husbands, and wives gone. They cried, lamented, and threw themselves into each other’s arms. Everyone gathered in the courtyard, asking each other who had lost whom. They asked those who had survived the roundup how it had happened and begged for even the smallest details about their loved ones who had been taken away.

Someone described what had taken place on Magdeburski Square in the center of the ghetto, where all the Jews had been forced to gather before being taken away. A few people had managed to escape from there. A selection had been made by the Germans. Women had been forced to give up their children, who were led to a different transport. Those who refused to give their children to the Germans had them torn away by force. There were some cases when enraged Germans tore infants out of their mothers’ arms and, holding them by their feet, smashed their heads against the walls of buildings in front of their mothers’ eyes. Several people who had witnessed this described it in detail.

Women threw themselves on the ground in despair; men stood in groups and wept loudly. A woman screamed with her hands reaching up toward the sky, “Mama! Mama! Why did they take you away? Why did you go? Oh … my life is over!” Women were sitting on the ground, crying; their faces were contorted with grief. Others were just standing there like specters, as if they’d lost their senses and didn’t know what was happening. In the courtyard there was one electric light, which cast long shadows of the lamenting people in various directions. I’ll never forget this image; if a person would like to try to imagine hell—it was there, in that courtyard.

I no longer remember if the bunker in the cellar, where we’d hidden at the beginning, had been discovered or not. There were many bunkers in this building, but some people had decided not to hide. They’d lain in their beds in total apathy, awaiting their fate. Many people had already run out of strength to survive even before this roundup operation began. They had, quite simply, lost the will to live. Everyone who was caught that day by the Germans was forced to go into the courtyard, and from there they were led to Magdeburski Square. Then they were loaded, like cattle, into trains that were waiting for them.

On that day, September 10, 1942, eight thousand people were transported from the Tarnów ghetto to the gas chambers in Bełżec, where they were killed.

The next day, my father fell ill with a high fever and stomach pains. He vomited constantly. In the evening a doctor named Dr. Wachtel came to examine my father and said he had dysentery, and it was necessary to quarantine him because it was an extremely contagious disease. The Lehrhaupts’ son had a good idea—to put my father in the building’s attic. My mother said we’d go with him. A bed was made for him from planks, and an old, shredded mattress was placed on it. Blankets were spread on the floor for us. The attic was very large and seemed much more comfortable to me than the cramped room in the Lehrhaupts’ apartment.

My father’s condition worsened the next day, and he had to sit constantly on a bucket. My mother kept telling us to stay away from the bucket because it was full of blood. Dr. Wachtel gave my mother instructions on how to disinfect my father’s clothes and warned us to be very careful about hygiene. Hearing him say this, my father, who was lying there with a fever, started laughing and said that talking about hygiene in that attic was like telling a chimney sweep to avoid soot. The doctor reassured my anxious mother by telling her that he was sure my father would recover because he was in a good mood.

My father was ill for two weeks. Sometimes he was better, sometimes worse, but he never lost hope, and he continued to cheer us up even while he was fighting the disease. We remained with him constantly, and my mother took care of him day and night. Dr. Wachtel told us later that he couldn’t understand how it was possible that we didn’t catch the illness. The only person who visited us apart from the doctor was the Lehrhaupts’ son. He brought us food, water, and news from the ghetto. His helpfulness and kindness moved us deeply. He was a remarkable boy—a “noble soul,” as my parents said.

One day he joyfully told us he’d found an apartment for us. In the courtyard there was a closed-up shop in which some old things were stored. The Lehrhaupts’ son had cleared everything out by himself, plastered the cracked walls, and whitewashed the entire place. He’d put a lot of work into it. After my father recovered, the Lehrhaupts’ son led us there triumphantly. It was a large space—larger than a normal room.

People brought us several pieces of furniture and various household necessities. We were set up quite well, and we each had our own bed. The shop didn’t have any windows, only a door made of a corrugated sheet of tin that rolled down from the top.

That day I went for a walk through the ghetto for the first time, promising my parents that if I saw any Germans I’d hide immediately. I looked all around as I walked. Now I understood why people were sneaking about like frightened animals. I walked along poverty-stricken streets and alleyways that looked as if their residents were extinct. Most people were in the factories, and the rest were afraid to go outside. But the desire to experience life was more powerful than fear; I passed people here and there, including children. In a courtyard they were even kicking a ball made of rags back and forth.

Once again, I felt a profound loneliness. I missed my friends and began to think about them. I soon found myself facing a tall wooden fence that separated the ghetto from the Aryan side. I noticed people standing there, talking with people on the other side of the fence through gaps between the wooden planks. I went closer and saw that the people in the ghetto were buying bread, butter, and vegetables. Everything was happening in a rush; the people were constantly looking around. One of the planks could be pushed aside, and products were being passed into the ghetto.

I knew my mother didn’t have any bread for us that day. I wondered how I could get a loaf of bread from these people. I knew nobody would give me anything without money—there was no point asking for bread, since everyone would laugh at me. I saw them haggling over every penny. I made a mental note of where this spot was and kept walking. I wandered aimlessly and looked at the ghetto. Everything was gray, neglected, and horribly squalid.

I was finally about to go home when I found myself at the main entrance gate. There was a German soldier in front of the gate and several Jewish policemen were standing on the ghetto side. One of them was speaking with a postman. Seeing me, he beckoned me over to him. I wondered whether I should run away. He beckoned to me again, and when I came closer, he took a large bundle of letters from the postman and handed it to me.

“Deliver these letters. It’ll be worth it for you because everyone will give you a tip.”

I took the letters and started walking around with them, constantly asking people how to find certain streets. I went to various apartments where I was welcomed by people as if I were an angel visiting them. Everywhere I went, I was given something—mostly spare change, but sometimes a slice of bread, which I put in a bag that a woman gave me. An old woman with trembling hands gave me a carrot. I thanked her but refused to take it. “Just take this, at least,” she said, and kissed me on the forehead. When nobody was home, I slid the letters under the door. About two hours later, all the letters had been delivered.

I’d collected, it seemed to me, a handsome sum of money. I was sure I’d now be able to buy a loaf of bread and maybe even something more. I headed to the spot I’d seen earlier but couldn’t find it. I decided to walk along right next to the fence. Suddenly I heard a voice from the other side say, “Wait! Where are you rushing off to so fast? Come here, we can do some business.”

I looked through a gap and saw a boy standing on the other side with a thick bundle of newspapers under his arm.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“Buy a few newspapers and start selling them. The price of a newspaper in the ghetto is a lot higher. Then come back to me and buy some more. I’ll wait for you here.” Seeing my indecision, he added, “What are you afraid of? There’s no way to lose money in this business.”

I bought ten newspapers. I stood in the doorway of a building and called out, “Newspapers! Newspapers!” It took me only a few minutes to sell all the newspapers, at double the price, to the residents of the building in front of which I was standing. A woman asked me if the price of newspapers on the Aryan side had fallen, since I was selling them so cheap.

Because it was going so well for me, I went back to the boy, who was waiting for me on the other side of the fence. I bought all the newspapers from him. I decided to keep selling them in doorways. I went from one entranceway to another, shouting, “Newspapers! Newspapers!” Half an hour later I only had three left. People were craving news from the outside world and were looking for something in it that would give them hope.

When I left the last doorway, someone grabbed my hand from behind. I turned around and saw a Jewish policeman in front of me. He shouted, “Don’t you know it’s forbidden to sell newspapers in the ghetto? The Germans have already shot three boys like you. Do you want to be the fourth?” He let go of my hand and commanded, “Throw those newspapers away and get out of here!”

He shook his finger at me and shouted, “I never want to see you around here again!”

I stood there, frozen to the spot. Seeing my helplessness, he asked, “How old are you?”

“Eleven.”

“You look older. Who are you trying to fool?”

“Eleven,” I repeated.

A bit calmer now, the policeman nodded, and his voice became gentler. “Maybe you’re telling the truth. In the ghetto people grow up quickly. All right, scram!”

Nobody knew if the Germans were about to transport people from the ghetto again. For now, everyone was living from day to day, thanking God for each day that passed peacefully.

I tossed the last three newspapers on the ground and ran away from the man as fast as my legs could carry me. After a while, out of breath, I slowed down. I realized I was once again next to the spot in the fence where people were buying food. I stood there and asked how much a loaf of bread cost that a man had in a basket. He told me the price. I also saw a woman who looked like an old village granny holding a large lump of butter on some cabbage leaves. Butter was a rare treat for us. We hadn’t eaten butter for a very long time—only yellow, rancid margarine.

I imagined how happy my mother would be if I brought her such a present. For the amount of money I had, I could buy several loaves of bread. It took me quite a while to decide what to buy. The woman urged me, “Take this fresh butter, straight from the countryside.”

Finally, I bought one loaf of bread and the butter. She wrapped the butter up for me, together with the cabbage leaves, in an old newspaper, and handed it through the fence as if it were a precious object that was hard for her to part with. I put the loaf in my bag, in which I already had a few slices of bread. I carried the package of butter carefully and found my way home.

My parents were astounded when I proudly presented my treasures to them. I told them quickly about what had happened, and we began to cut the bread.

Before my mother touched the butter with the knife, she looked fondly at it for a moment. The butter was decorated with marks from a spoon and truly looked lovely. Then my mother started spreading some on the bread, and Lusia smacked her lips because she knew the first slice would be for her. But the knife struck something hard, and it turned out to be a turnip coated with a thin layer of butter. I felt so horribly betrayed and hurt that I didn’t want to put any of the butter in my mouth.

After this event, my parents forbade me from wandering off. My heart was very heavy. I didn’t have anything to do to pass the time, and I missed my friends.

My father found some company for himself more quickly. There was a man named Baruch living in our building; my father spent many hours with him, talking and playing chess. They became very close friends. He was also in Tarnów “illegally.” He was about forty years old. He’d left his wife and infant daughter outside the ghetto. They were from a small town near Tarnów. Right before a roundup operation during which the Germans deported all the Jews from their town, they’d hidden in their maid’s house in the countryside. Mr. Baruch, however, had been unable to remain there and had managed to reach the ghetto in Tarnów.

One day, Mr. Baruch told my father he’d received a message from his wife that the maid and her family no longer wanted to let her stay in their house. He contacted a close friend who lived in Tarnów, who promised him that he would get his wife and child and help them enter the ghetto. Later he would try to obtain forged identity documents for all of them and find somewhere for them to live.

Despite his clearly Jewish name, Mr. Baruch had a very Aryan appearance. He promised my father that as soon as they were settled somewhere on Aryan papers, he would ask his friend to help us, too. This gave us fresh hope that we might manage to leave the ghetto before the next roundup operation. We discussed plans and wondered where we could hide.

One afternoon several days later, a neighbor came to us—a shohet (ritual butcher)—and asked my father to go with him to Mr. Baruch’s apartment because he was reciting the Kaddish (the prayer for the dead) and needed ten men.

“What happened?” asked my father, alarmed.

The man told us that a terrible misfortune had befallen Mr. Baruch. His friend had driven to Tarnów with Mr. Baruch’s wife and daughter; two hundred meters from the ghetto, someone had recognized his wife and called the police. All three were arrested and taken to the gestapo. Before entering, Mr. Baruch’s wife put cyanide in her daughter’s mouth; then she swallowed some herself. Both died on the spot.

I went with my father to the apartment in which Mr. Baruch had a small room. It was already full of men. Mr. Baruch’s eyes were bloodshot, and someone was holding him up. Soon the men began to pray, and for the first time, I saw my father cry while praying. It was a long time before Mr. Baruch was able to pull himself together and then, sobbing, haltingly recite the Kaddish. This tragic ceremony was repeated twice a day for an entire week, and Mr. Baruch seemed to become increasingly devastated.

My father stayed with him all the time and tried to keep his spirits up, but he himself returned from Mr. Baruch’s apartment increasingly despondent. Then a message came that Mr. Baruch’s friend had been shot in the gestapo’s headquarters. This noble Polish man lost his life because he had helped his Jewish friend. Mr. Baruch tortured himself with reproaches that all of this had been his fault. He felt responsible for their deaths and was unable to forgive himself.

One day someone told my mother it was possible to obtain milk with food cards. My mother gave me a jug and some cards and told me to run quickly and stand in line. I left our shop-apartment, ran across the courtyard, and entered the hallway that led to the street. It was a lovely, sunny day, and when I ran out of the dark, narrow corridor, the sun blinded me, and I shut my eyes. I only opened them after I’d taken several more steps. What I saw at that moment made my heart sink with terror. About thirty steps away from me were several Germans, and they were coming straight toward me. I stood there, not knowing what to do. At that very moment someone shouted from a window: “Run! It’s Rommelman! Run!”

I spun on my heels and started running home. I heard shouts behind me: “Halt! Halt!” I flew like lightning through the entrance hallway and into the courtyard. I ran up to our shop and, with a sudden instinct, quickly lowered the metal door over the entrance and ran to the hallway on the opposite side of the courtyard. When I was about three steps away from it, once again I heard behind me: “Halt!” The sound of a gunshot rang out; the bullet flew past my head and made a hole in the wall in front of me. On the threshold of the hallway I crashed into the shohet, who happened to be coming out right then. A second gunshot rang out, and the bullet hit the shohet.

I frantically ran up the staircase and only stopped when I reached the top floor. I heard another gunshot. I saw a Jewish policeman from our building standing near another staircase, close to the covered balcony that encircled the entire courtyard on every floor. He was cautiously leaning out and looking down at the courtyard. He noticed me and signaled for me to stay quiet and come closer to him. It was the same policeman who had led us to the second hiding place during the roundup operation. I approached him, and when he saw that I was trembling from head to toe, he drew me close to him in a fatherly way, which calmed me greatly.

I looked down. The shohet was lying near our shop in a pool of blood. The Germans were looking around the courtyard. They stood there for a while, smoking, then headed back to the building’s entrance hallway. We stayed where we were for about fifteen minutes before someone came into the courtyard and shouted, “The Germans are gone! The Germans are gone!”

People started appearing in the courtyard one by one, slowly and fearfully. I hurried down to the courtyard and lifted the door of our shop.

A strange sight met my eyes: my father was sitting on the bed with Lusia, and his hand was over her mouth. He looked at me with a confused expression.

My mother was sitting on the floor, holding her head in her hands. I said, “Mama,” and then … she fainted. It turned out that my parents had been watching through a small hole in the roller door and heard the gunshots that were fired right after I’d pulled the door down. They’d seen the pool of blood in the courtyard and had been sure the Germans had shot me. They couldn’t see the body.

There was no doubt that if I hadn’t closed the roller door right at that moment, Rommelman would have entered the shop and killed my entire family.

After this happened, I felt even more scared of leaving home. I was overwhelmed by a growing feeling of hopelessness and loneliness. I was sad and despondent all the time, and I barely spoke. I sat on my bed for hours on end, completely motionless.

My mother told my father I was depressed and suggested summoning the rabbi, who was still frequently visiting Mr. Baruch. My father thought I was too young for conversations with the rabbi. When my mother kept insisting, he said, “Mina, you don’t understand. What the rabbi tells people is philosophy. Henryk is still too young for it. There’s no point burdening him with things he’s unable to understand.” I knew there were many things I couldn’t understand. It depressed me, however, to realize that when I did begin to understand something I hadn’t understood previously, it was always something bad, never something good.

One day, at my mother’s urging, I went out into the courtyard and sat down on a chair. The rays of sunshine caressed my face, and I had a pleasant feeling as if a huge weight had been lifted off my heart. I sat there for about an hour in the sunlight until I sensed someone standing next to me. I opened my eyes and saw a very pretty girl about my age, maybe nine or ten years old. I looked at her curiously because I’d never seen her before. She had dark hair and green eyes.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Ninka,” she answered with a smile.

I was surprised because her name reminded me of Nina from Wieliczka. We started talking, and the more we said to each other, the more interested I felt in her. I brought her a chair from our home, and we sat together in the sun.

She told me she’d been smuggled into the ghetto from the Aryan side just the day before. She’d been hiding there with her father, but she ended up alone because the Germans had caught her father in the street. Some kind people helped her enter the ghetto. Her mother was living on Aryan papers in Lwów. For the time being, Ninka was staying with her aunt in our building. Her aunt was going to ask her mother to send someone for her. I also briefly told her my story; she listened to it intently, as if it concerned someone dear to her.

Ninka was very intelligent. She was always solemn, and her beautiful eyes looked sad. While talking to her, I had the impression she was much older. It occurred to me then that the Jewish policeman who had caught me with the newspapers had been right. The war was clearly adding years to us. I was deeply moved by the symbolism of her name. It seemed to me that Nina from Wieliczka had sent her to me so I wouldn’t feel lonely.

Meeting this girl stirred in me a new desire to live, and my depression gradually passed. We spent entire days together. She felt even lonelier than I did because her aunt was rarely home—she worked in a German factory and came home late at night.

Ninka and I talked about many things and tried to understand the world. She was most deeply troubled by the following problems: Why do wars happen? Why are there so many people who hate Jews? What harm have we ever caused them? Why do they think we’re worse than other people? We couldn’t find answers to any of these questions, but even just thinking about them together and being able to share our thoughts with someone was a relief. One day, while I was with her in her room, I asked her where she would hide if another roundup operation began in the ghetto. “I have parents, and they’re definitely already thinking about this, but what will happen to you? Who will you hide with?”

At this question, Ninka looked at me with her large, sad eyes, and said she’d hide alone.

“Come, I’ll show you where. My aunt told me what to do in such a case. Nobody knows about this hiding place except me and my aunt. Swear you won’t show it to anyone, because even if one day I’m no longer here, this hiding place will belong only to my aunt.”

I swore she could trust me. She led me along a balcony to one of the staircases and then up the stairs to a higher floor. There was a bathroom in the hallway. We entered it, and Ninka pointed upward.

I saw a narrow shaft above us, which seemed to lead to the roof. But I couldn’t see any kind of hiding space—just walls. Ninka stood on the toilet seat and pulled on a barely visible string wound around the chain that flushed the toilet. Something fluttered high above us and then fell. It turned out to be a rope ladder. Ninka grabbed it and straightened it out.

“I’ll climb up first. You can come up after I reach the top and give you a signal. OK?”

I nodded, and she climbed up as nimbly as a cat, which surprised me very much because I didn’t expect such dexterity from her. A moment later she was already at the top of the ladder, and then she disappeared.

“Now it’s your turn!” she called out.

It took me longer; I had to stop several times because I was afraid of falling. Ninka watched my exertions from above and laughed. Finally, climbing very slowly, I reached Ninka’s legs and saw that she was sitting inside a large alcove. I scrambled in, and Ninka pulled up the ladder. She told me she had practiced entering the hiding place several times with her aunt and was now used to it.

I looked around curiously. The alcove was about three meters by one meter in size. Above us there was a small glass window overlooking the roof. In the alcove there were two barrels, a bucket, and several cardboard boxes piled on top of each other. The box at the top was open, and there were bottles inside it. Ninka explained that the bottles were full of water, and there was also water in one of the barrels. The other barrel was for relieving oneself, so that it wouldn’t be necessary to go down and use the toilet. A sack full of something was lying next to the other wall, and in front of it was a small bench.

“What’s in there?” I asked, pointing to the sack.

“Crackers.”

Right in front of my legs, in the middle of the alcove, there was a mattress and some blankets. I also noticed a bottle of Lysol.

“My aunt told me it’s possible to hide here for a month, maybe even two months.”

“On nothing but crackers and water?” I asked, doubtfully.

“Not only crackers. Look what’s on the wall.”

Only then did I notice something hanging against the wall, covered by a piece of material. Ninka lifted the material and two huge, thick smoked sausages appeared before my eyes. She pointed at a second piece of material.

“There are two more sausages under that one, but we’re not allowed to touch them because we’ll eat them when we hide here.”

She told me her aunt had received this hiding place from a man who’d prepared it for his family, but he and his family had managed to escape from the ghetto on Aryan papers. If a roundup happened while her aunt was working at the factory, Ninka was supposed to hide here. Her aunt had brought the crackers and sausages because she was afraid the Germans might liquidate the entire ghetto, and she wanted to be able to hide here for a long time if necessary.

We sat on the bench, and Ninka told me her aunt had forbidden her from entering one of the bunkers with other people during a roundup because those hiding spots were too precarious. Several people lived in this building who worked for the Judenrat as well as some Jewish policemen. Ninka’s aunt was afraid that if there weren’t as many people rounded up for a transport as the Germans demanded, they might report hiding places they knew about in order to save their own lives.

Ninka’s aunt had told her that in other ghettos there had been cases when the Germans had demanded, on pain of death, that the members of the Judenrat hand over Jews for a transport. Those who didn’t want to reveal where people were hiding committed suicide. There were also some who yielded to the Germans and betrayed their brothers. There was no way to know what was going to happen here, in Tarnów.

Ninka became very emotional while telling me this. She was clearly more concerned about our situation than I was. Perhaps it was because she was alone and had a more acute instinct for self-preservation. I relied completely on my parents. Whatever happened to them would also happen to me. I didn’t think about the future. I just lived from day to day, like most people in the ghetto.

We sat there in the alcove above the toilet, and Ninka gave me a long lecture about her aunt’s speculations on the chances of surviving a roundup operation. She spoke like a grown-up and emphasized things she thought were particularly important.

After a while she looked at me, smiled, and said, “Take off your clothes.” I was startled and bewildered. I didn’t know how to react. I looked at her in disbelief.

Henryk Schönker was born in 1931 into one of the most prominent and highly esteemed Jewish families of Oświęcim—the Polish town renamed Auschwitz during the German occupation. His father, Leon Schönker, was the last leader of Oświęcim’s Jewish community before the town was invaded by the Nazis. Refusing to become the leader of the new Nazi-created Judenrat and frightened by the ominous mass settlement of Jewish people in Oświęcim shortly before the creation of the Auschwitz death camp, Leon fled with his wife and two children—first to Kraków, then Wieliczka, Tarnów and Bochnia. They managed to survive the war through sheer luck and a strong will to survive. After the war ended, unlike many Holocaust survivors who emigrated from Poland to Israel and other countries, the Schönker family returned to Oświęcim in the hope of resuming their lives there.

After the war, Henryk graduated from the Kraków Polytechnic Institute with a degree in mechanical engineering. In 1955, under pressure from the communist authorities, Henryk’s family left Poland for Vienna, then emigrated to Israel in 1961. Henryk worked in the Israeli aeronautical industry until his retirement. He lived in Tel Aviv with his wife, Helena, who is also a Holocaust survivor from Radom, Poland. They had three daughters and ten grandchildren. Henryk started painting in 1979, focusing on one theme in his works—the Holocaust. He died in Tel Aviv in January 2019.

The Touch of an Angel is a memoir written by Henryk Schönker during his final years in Tel Aviv, based on recollections of his life in Oświęcim before World War II, his survival of the war with his family, and his family’s return to Oświęcim in 1945. The final chapter of the book, detailing his family’s ultimately failed struggle to live in Oświęcim again after the war, provides a fascinating glimpse of challenges faced by Jewish people who chose to remain in Poland during the post-war communist period and attempted to rebuild their lives there.

Schönker’s testimony also reveals an astonishing fact: the town of Oświęcim could have become the departure point for a mass emigration of Jewish people instead of the place of their annihilation. As a leader of the Jewish community of Oświęcim, Henryk’s father, Leon Schönker, was given the task of overseeing the emigration of Jews from Poland during the first year of the Nazi occupation, with Oświęcim and its surrounding areas designated as the departure point. The mass emigration ultimately failed due to foreign countries’ refusal to accept Jewish refugees from Poland. Documents included with the narrative provide support for this claim.

Although he was only a child at the time, Henryk Schönker’s life experience was the Holocaust. Even so, death and the threat of death are not the focus of this memoir. Instead, Schönker chooses to focus on how life can defy destruction, how spirituality can protect physical existence, and how one must never lose faith. His story has been made into an award-winning documentary film in Polish and German, The Touch of an Angel, directed by Marek T. Pawłowski.

From Henryk Schönker’s The Touch of an Angel, pages 131-147. Translated from Polish by Scotia Gilroy. Published by Indiana University Press, 2021, in association with the KARTA Center Foundation and POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.