Basia Temkin-Bermanowa: “This time I will write alone”
At POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, we wish to remember those Jews who helped other Jews on the “Aryan side” in occupied Poland. The Yad Vashem Institute does not honour these people with the title of Righteous Among the Nations, as that title is only bestowed upon non-Jews. They, also, are Righteous, as understood in the broad and universal accepted sense of the word – they are people who opposed the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany. They also defended dignity and human rights. Read the story of Basia Temkin-Bermanowa from the Polish Righteous website section: Jews helping other Jews on the “Aryan side”.
Table of contents
- From a religious daughter to a secular Zionist. The fate of Basia Temkin-Bermanowa before the war ⇩
- Trench coat and beret. Social and political activity of the Bermans in the Warsaw ghetto and hiding on the “Aryan side” (1940-1942) ⇩
- “Secret Brotherhood”. Basia Temkin-Bermanowa's underground activity in occupied Warsaw (1942–1944) ⇩
- Needs, duties, mechanisms of action. Self-help by Jews in hiding on the “Aryan side” ⇩
- From Poland to Israel. The fate of the Bermans after the war ⇩
She escaped from the Warsaw ghetto in September 1942 during the displacement carried out by the Germans. On the so-called Aryan side, she had to live in hiding under an assumed identity. Nevertheless, she helped other Jews in hiding – she found hiding places for them, organized false identity documents, and provided financial aid. Together with her husband, Adolf Abraham Berman, who held a number of social and political functions in the leadership of the underground, she was active in the Jewish National Committee and the Żegota Council to Aid Jews. The fate of Basia, as Barbara Temkin-Bermanowa was called in the pages of countless diaries, reports and memories about the Holocaust, is the herstory* of one of the most active activists of the Jewish resistance movement in occupied Poland.
“I admired what [...] impressive strength of spirit, peace and serenity this extraordinary woman had [...], tireless activity, a heart open to every misery and anguish”, Janina Bucholzt-Bukolska recalled in a post-war account for the Yad Vashem Institute.” […] I do not understand how she could, being in constant danger, lead such an active life, maintain so many contacts with various organizations, carry out [such] actions as the delivery of weapons to the ghetto before the uprising, help for the camps in Trawniki and Sobibór […], and in addition to care for each individual ‘client’.”
Perhaps the secret is hidden in “Diary from the Underground”, which Basia Temkin-Bermanowa kept between January 5, 1944 and January 14, 1945. “I felt the greatest mental relaxation when I peeled the potatoes”, she wrote in one of her notes. It was ordinary and extraordinary.
From a religious daughter to a secular Zionist. The fate of Basia Temkin-Bermanowa before the war
She was born on 21 August 1907 in Warsaw, where her grandfather, Michał Temkin, moved from Bobruisk (today in Belarus). The Temkins were, as she wrote, “an ordinary Jewish family” – parents attached to tradition, daughters secularized and more closely connected with Polish culture:
“I felt sorry for my father who quietly complained to his pillow at night, how corrupted my sisters were. I was religious and the “gentile” way of life of the sisters hurt me. At the same time, I identified with them and with a heavy heart helped them deceive their father and hide their late returns”.
In 1923, aged sixteen, she joined Hashomer Hatzair, a left-wing Zionist youth organization, and then the Poale Zion-Left party, of which her future husband, Adolf Abraham Berman, a psychologist and doctor of philosophy, was also a member. After their marriage in 1936, they moved to 29 Ogrodowa Street.
In the years 1926–1930, Barbara studied social and political sciences at the Free Polish University and pedagogy at the University of Warsaw. Then she started working at the National Library, where she dealt with the collection of Judaica.
Trench coat and beret. Social and political activity of the Bermans in the Warsaw ghetto and hiding on the “Aryan side” (1940-1942)
From November 1940, the Bermans were locked in the Warsaw ghetto. Adolf managed the Headquarters of the Societies for the Care of Orphans and Abandoned Children “CENTOS”, and Basia's most important activity was running a library for children. In March 1942, the Bermans, together with other activists, founded the Antifascist Bloc – an underground agreement of political organizations in the ghetto, which resulted in the emergence of a Jewish resistance movement in occupied Poland.
On 5 September 1942, during the displacement action carried out by the Germans, Adolf and Basia escaped from the ghetto. According to false documents, which they used from then on on the “Aryan side”, they were siblings – “Adam Borowski” and “Barbara Biernacka”. While waiting for the “Aryan papers”, they did not leave their hiding place for a month and did not contact anyone:
“[…] we listened through the open window to see how people normally live”, Temkin-Bermanowa recalled her first impressions on the other side of the wall. “We were amazed to hear the beggar old woman's singing. How is that possible? Old people walking in the street! And they are allowed to beg! It seemed like the pinnacle of freedom. And the children are also laughing, children that we have not seen on the street for six weeks, unless you count the ones driven to the Umschlagplatz. They sell tomatoes on trolleys, vendors are calling. [...] You cannot feel that so many people are dying today about half a kilometre from here”.
“[…] I pretended to be a poor woman, an impoverished intellectual, a refugee from the Kresy region, [...] I had to adapt to the new identity”. She wore a dark red scuffed overcoat. “[...] I made the patches symmetrically, reaching almost to the elbow [...]. Din addition, a black ‘fox’ collar, made of a goat's fur, [...] worn and rusty, [...] a beret with the famous ‘mourner’ [veil] […]; after numerous darning and stitching, it looked like uncompassed peasant land seen from the train car's windows”.
She completed the outfit with a torn briefcase tied with a string. “When the first summer outside the walls  was approaching, I was in despair, because it seemed to me that by taking off my coat and the fox, I would expose myself”. She believed that the fox was covering her face. In retrospect, it was not the looks but the facial expressions that mattered the most. She believed that the “uniform” saved her from blackmail – no one ever accosted her, but the Bermans were forced to change apartments many times. The last address of the Warsaw Uprising (1944) was the house at 21 Krasińskiego Street in Żoliborz. The place belonged to Stefania Sempołowska's cousin.
“Secret Brotherhood”. Basia Temkin-Bermanowa's underground activity in occupied Warsaw (1942–1944)
“One would like to describe this country within a country, or rather a city within a city”, she wrote. “This peculiar, most underground of the underground communities, whose members met, worked and talked among the inconceivable surroundings, where every street, cake shop, bus stop was like dozens of peculiar adventures, every name was false, every word thrown had two meanings, and every phone call was more secret than secret diplomatic documents of embassies”.
The confusion associated with leaving the ghetto was gone with his involvement in underground activities at the turn of 1942 and 1943. In October, the Jewish National Committee was established, and in December, the Polish-Jewish Council to Aid Jews “Żegota”. Adolf joined the Polish-Jewish Council to Aid Jews as a representative of the Jewish National Committee, sitting on the commission for the distribution of the allocated subsidies, and from January 1943 to July 1944 as the secretary of the presidium.
“The Jewish National Committee has created over one hundred care groups, concentrated in three ‘wings’. At the head of one of the largest of the »wings« were Adolf and Barbara Berman”, wrote the researcher Teresa Prekerowa on Jewish self-help. The “secret brotherhood” had its own language, used distinctive signs, and dressed in a certain way. One of the contact points of the Jewish National Committee liaison was the notary's office at Miodowa Street, where Janina Bucholtz-Bukolska, a collaborator of “Żegota”, worked as a translator. It was there that Basia Temkin-Bermanowa met those whom she mentioned in the journal as the most devoted collaborators: Klima Fuswerk-Krymek, Helena Merenholc, Bela Elster, Józef Zysman, Zosia Rodziewicz, Maria Grzegorzewska, Irena Sawicka, Irena Kurowska, Felicja Felhorska, Irena Solska and many others.
“[…]Basia's ‘mailbox’ for me swelled. There were more and more ‘clients’ in my office, and not waiting for translations, but for Mrs Basia or someone from her staff. I did not have the heart to ask them to go out on the street. I knew what the street could bring to such people at any moment”, reported Janina Bucholtz-Bukolska.
During this period, until 18 January 1943, Adolf Berman made daily attempts to contact the ghetto. He was getting through during the breaks of the so-called January action carried out by the Germans. The phones were answered by those who dared to leave the hiding places. The Bermans felt helpless. “We heard these voices from the abyss, but there was no access to them. We didn't think about the sewers [evacuation through the sewers – ed.] Back then.” Basia wrote. There was a shortage of funds, but they persisted, persuading their friends to switch to the “Aryan side”.”
“Józef G[itler-Barski] was the first to leave, first his wife and daughter, then himself. His wife's address was given to him by A[dolf] in the following manner [on the phone]. It was Wileńska Street. So: – Do you remember Szalit and the city where he worked (Vilnius)? Let Celina [Gitler] go there! And he, a smart guy, caught on right away and says: – It has something to do with the capital of Czechoslovakia, doesn't it (Prague)? Yes, such and such number was sent by Mr. Józef”.
Needs, duties, mechanisms of action. Self-help by Jews in hiding on the “Aryan side”
The fugitives from the Warsaw ghetto, who from the end of the deportation action in September 1942 until the outbreak of the uprising in April 1943, operated in the so-called residual phase, as a forced labour camp, had to be provided with documents, financially supported, and helped in their illness.
“When I was reading [...] a novel from the life of the Polish Underground, entitled Stones for the Rampart, the scene seemed comical to me when one of the heroes of the book put such a note into a bouquet of roses, from where it fell out during a street search, putting him in great danger. I always carried a dozen or so cards like this with photos with me, and sometimes even several dozen, and I did not make such a great deal about them”.
Before Barbara gained confidence in her new role, she avoided rickshaws and carriages. Trams ran overloaded, so she went to meetings on foot, especially when she donated large sums. Until one of her charges started making double-bottomed bags, similar to those commonly used by housewives at that time, she wrapped documents in newspapers, put them in a porridge or sugar wrapper, and threw these in turn into a shopping bag. Packages were often so thick that they could not fit into the drop box. There were four or more documents per client: birth certificate, ID card, work card, etc.
“Theoretically, all our employees should always carry a pile of all possible forms with them, fill them out immediately, and legibly and in ink, – regardless of the circumstances – and then hand them over to me, ready, along with photos pinned with a paper-clip. In practice, it was madness, so like the old times, I would receive data with a photo scrawled on scraps of newspapers, and then I had to rewrite them during the night for hours”.
Data were selected so as not to arouse suspicions. “There are certain surnames and names related to a certain sphere [...], the profession should be most related to appearance and – if possible – real qualifications”. The new names referred to the real ones, for example Berliński – Jeleński, Rozenfeld – Różański. When it comes to places, Basia recalled: “I mostly put in for the Varsovians the city of Łódź, which almost every Jew knew or at least heard about. I was reluctant to do the work for those from Kresy region, only for people who actually came from there. For example, Geni Sylkes, who comes from Brest and has a terrible accent, I made a birth certificate from Białystok, and the names and surnames so that she could pretend to be Belarusian”.
A separate problem was getting rid of unnecessary documents, such as uncollected ID cars, notes, bills, receipts or orders for documents with the personal details and passwords of the connecting agents. “All the toilets in the houses where we lived were a bit clogged and the papers were flushed out in large amounts”. They could only be burned in winter, and in a way so that the stove door closing caused as little noise as possible to attract attention. “I dragged this paper crumpled, stuffed into my purse all over the city and there I either flushed it in some public toilet or burned in my friends' stoves”.
The translation office at Miodowa Street was just one of hundreds of places to meet, exchange information or documents. Basia Temkin-Bermanowa often visited the confectionery. There she warmed up in winter, looked for shade in summer, used the bathroom. They made appointments with their associate, Bela Elster, at stops in various parts of Śródmieście – at the corner of Aleje Jerozolimskie and Nowy Świat or Marszałkowska, on Krakowskie Przedmieście at Miodowa, at Teatralny Square. Barbara was late so as not to have to wait. “[Bela] looked so ‘good’ that she could stand even in the most plagued places. But it was worse in my case”.
From Poland to Israel. The fate of the Bermans after the war
The Warsaw Uprising found Berman in Żoliborz. Barbara was keeping records under fire. “We are used to [...] doing everything with A[dolf]”, she emphasized in the introduction. “This time I will write myself.” In her extraordinary “Diary from the Underground”, she recorded a meeting with members of the Jewish Combat Organization who, like many others, took advantage of the shelter on Krasiński Street.
“The door opens and a strange procession enters. At the head, barefoot, ragged, with a tied, dishevelled head, Antek [Cukierman] is walking in a German protective cloak, behind him a little girl with a forehead and a neck covered in plasters and bandages, in which I guess Cyvia [Lubetkin], then a dark-haired boy in a military hat and a long rubber coat, which is almost dragging on the ground behind him. I don't know him, it turns out it's Marek [Edelman]. We start to kiss, tears choke us”. For supper they ate a hen with noodles brought by a friend from Marymont, they were glad that they were together.
After the war, Basia returned to the profession of a librarian, saved Jewish books from the Holocaust and catalogued them. In June 1946, she gave birth to a son, Emanuel. Adolf chaired the Central Committee of Jews in Poland. Gradually it became clear that there was no place for them in the country. Berman was removed from his post in 1949, and a year later they left for Israel.
Temkin-Bermanowa, so active so far, now taking care of the child, without knowing the language, was looking for a job unsuccessfully. There were health problems, doctors diagnosed Parkinson's disease. She struggled with depression. She was treated in sanatoriums far from her family, her relationship with her husband, who, as a deputy to the Knesset, was often away from home, worsened.
In the autumn of 1952, she finally got a job in the school library. After a few months, she developed pneumonia which contributed to her death. She passed away on April 30, 1953.
She left behind a diary – a testimony to the events of the occupation, but also a reflection of the author's beautiful soul. It is a story of the Jewish resistance written from the perspective of women who, together with other Jews and Poles, saved the lives of hundreds of refugees from ghettos. The editors of the post-war edition of “Dziennik”, Anka Grupińska and Paweł Szapiro, summarized:
“[…] without mutual and close cooperation, none of the organizations saving Jews: Żegota, the Jewish National Committee and the Jewish Combat Organization could achieve what they managed to do together”.
Karolina Dzięciołowska, ed. Mateusz Szczepaniak, consultation: Dr. Emanuel Berman, June 2022
- Jews helping other Jews on the so-called Aryan side | Read selected stories of rescue »
- Jews hiding on the so-called Aryan side | See the conditions of hiding in occupied Poland »
- Situation of Jews in occupied Poland | Learn more on the Holocaust »
- Yad Vashem Archives: Janina Bucholzt-Bukolska, Wspomnienie o p. Basi To[e]mkin-Bermanowej, Łódź 1963, call no. O3.2321.
- Władysław Bartoszewski, Zofia Lewinówna, Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej. Polacy z pomocą Żydom 1939–1945, Wydawnictwo Znak, Kraków 1969 (and later releases).
- Teresa Prekerowa, Konspiracyjna Rada Pomocy Żydom w Warszawie 1942–1945, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa 1982, 2020 (edition extended and supplemented by A. Namysło).
- Basia Temkin-Bermanowa, Dziennik z podziemia, oprac. Anka Grupińska, Paweł Szapiro, Wydawnictwo Książkowe Twój Styl, Żydowski Instytut Historyczny, Warszawa 2000.