Jews hiding in the countryside
What were the experiences of Jews hiding in the countryside during the Holocaust? How and where did Jews seek refuge in village houses, farm buildings, in the fields or forests? What was written in the accounts, by Jews in hiding, about the threat of the accompanying fear and the threat of death? What was their perception of time during their life in hiding? Read the study by Prof. Barbara Engelking about Jews hiding in the countryside. This text is part of the Jews in Hiding on the “Aryan Side” section in which we discuss this context of the Holocaust in details in many aspects.
Table of contents
- Wandering and rambling of Jews on the “Aryan side” ⇩
- In a basement, in an attic, in a chimney, in a field. Characteristics of hiding in the countryside ⇩
- Cowshed, barn, pantry. Jews hiding in farm buildings ⇩
- In a grain field, in a dugout, in a ditch. Jews hiding in the fields ⇩
- In a burrow, in a raspberry bush, by a lake. Jews hiding in the woods ⇩
- Hiding during the Holocaust as a psychological experience: dread, fear of death, perception of time ⇩
The conditions awaiting Jews trying to hide in the Polish countryside during the Holocaust were completely different than those looking for a shelter in cities, which was due to the topographic and architectural disparities between the two environments. Hiding was rarely a static experience consisting of staying in a single place. Instead, periods of continuous residence in a given spot were usually intertwined with periods of wandering, finding asylum, roundups, manhunts, denunciations and escapes, back to itinerancy and looking for new hiding places. Jews hiding on the so-called Aryan side had to be constantly vigilant, ready to flee at any moment, to die or to wander further, to seek rescue and find hideouts. There was nothing permanent and certain in their existence, and if they even gained a sense of security, it was most often temporary, short-lived, and illusory.
“We decided not to leave the field, even at night, so that no one would notice our presence. […] Last night, on the eighth, I did not write. There was heavy rain at seven and we got wet. We waited until 1am for the rain to stop, having been exposed to the downpour for six hours, but it was incessant. We left the field and went to our peasants. The man was afraid to give us shelter at home and put us in a potato hole where we spent the whole day. Because of the darkness I could not write. […] A cold wind is blowing. We are waiting for the moment when the sun comes out and warms up our frozen bodies. […] Constant downpours laid the grain in the field. As a result, we were noticed by a passing peasant. […] I don't know if I will be able to continue my diary. As far as I know, these could be my last words. I'm off for now, because it's raining!,” wrote Arie Klonicki in 1943, hiding in a field near the village of Trybuchowce in the vicinity of Tarnopol.
Few of those Jews who found themselves in the Polish countryside after deportations from ghettos (1942–1943) stayed in planned, arranged hideouts from the very beginning. Many of them, probably the majority, wandered and rambled in search of shelter, at least for a while. This dynamic: wandering and rambling – finding shelter – escape or expulsion – wandering again, was a repetitive, characteristic rhythm of almost all stories of hiding on the “Aryan side” in cities and towns, not only in the countryside.
The land wandered by Jews seeking rescue was controlled by Poles, and the space – by the Germans. It was the Nazis who were making the rules in occupied Poland. Their decisions determined the fate of the Jews, who – in order to survive – had to hide or change their identity. It was the Germans who forced Jews into a labyrinth from which many could not find a way out. There was no escape from the labyrinth, there were no hints about how to navigate and which way to go; one was wandering along its paths, often going around, back and forth, in one’s own footsteps, for no previous life experiences could have prepared a person for this vagrancy.
“I walked through villages and towns, met all kinds of people, some received me well, some chased me with a stick or let the dogs attack me. The adventures of my journey were varied, and I was in danger quite often,” recalled Maks Gradus, a fugitive from the Warsaw ghetto.
This existential experience of an itinerant is one of a human desert, both in the literal sense – lack of help, random encounters, and the constant need to engage in manoeuvres and ploys – but also in the mental dimension – a futile search for understanding, but also a faith in another human being, a faith that can help preserve one’s soul. Rejection, refusal, expulsion, verbal and non-verbal messages hinting at fear, threat, hostility, and indifference could result not only in physical death, but also mental and spiritual death – loss of faith and hope, falling into despair. It was also an experience of being excluded from the category of human beings, of being deprived of the right to belong to the human species and the right to brotherhood. In the topographic dimension, it was an experience of homelessness, in the psychological dimension – of loneliness and disillusionment with people, and in the spiritual dimension – of the deepest suffering.
Searching for help required a great deal of determination, perseverance, intuition, and constant vigilance – being ready to react to any potential threat. The experience of wandering was accompanied by a whole range of emotions – hope and despair, resignation and depression, motivation, chronic exhaustion and overwhelming physical weariness. The trajectory of the journey was sometimes marked by guiding points – Polish friends, well-known places, other hiding Jews. The most important and characteristic feeling experienced by the itinerant Jews was one of humiliation, which was aptly expressed by Stefa Popowcer:
“Words cannot describe this feeling of homelessness, constant barging into people’s lives and begging them to let you spend the night in exchange for exorbitant sums.”
I believe that comprehending the depths of humiliation experienced by wandering Jews is important for understanding and interpreting the experience of the Holocaust in general. Asking for help was itself humiliating – on the one hand, it placed the asking person in the position of dependence and submission, and on the other, it was a provocation of sorts directed at the person who could potentially help. Asking for help meant exposing one's own weakness, admitting to being humiliated and degraded, in a sense accepting the position of an excluded person, left at someone else's mercy. The refusal to help could also be a humiliation – it backed up the conviction that Jews did not deserve the gift of life and were not worth taking a risk. Denying Jews help confirmed the stigma attached to them.
Hardly anyone was as lucky as Berek and Sala Róża. They escaped from the ghetto in Stanisławów (Minsk District) on the day of deportation, on 25 September 1942. They ran away to the forest, and at night they went to Mrs. Brańska in the village of Miłosna Cechówka. She agreed to take them into an empty flat in the backyard:
“We felt the luckiest people in the world,” they recalled. “The lady told us to enter the flat and said it was all ours. She fed us dinner and then made the bed. We were so happy, we did not know how to thank her. Mrs. Brańska kept us for two whole years until the liberation.”
Rarely did the experience of hiding resemble that of the Róża couple. Most stories were more similar to this of Liza Bursztyn, who for two years wandered the countryside near Łomża with her young daughter, hiding “in a basement, in an attic, in a chimney, in a field.” Mojsze Kamień recalled that when he was hiding in the vicinity of Brańsk with his brother, his friend Kiwa Saszyn, and his fiancée, they were often forced to change hideouts. For a month, they hid in a hole dug in a field without the farmer's knowledge, then they built a shelter in the yard of another farmer, their acquaintance. After another group of hiding Jews had been discovered and murdered in the neighbourhood, they had to leave. They initially went into hiding in a barn in the village of Patoki, again without the owner’s knowledge. They later made a shelter in the fields, leaving it at night to get water and steal food grown by the local farmers. When the shelter was exposed, they fled into the forest, but they later returned to the fields and dug yet another shelter. The dynamics of living in a rural hideout, apart from its general transience, were often ruled by the circadian rhythm. People would often hide during the day and be able to leave at night in order to enter someone's house or go searching for food. The case was different for Jews hiding in cities or towns, using the so-called Aryan papers.
Sabina Berger ran away from Lviv in 1942 and, as she recalled, “without any papers, I got on the train with my two-year-old son and headed towards Krakow.” There, her sisters-in-law got her false identity documents. As “Stefania Łysek,” she went with the child to nearby Swoszowice. She rented a room from peasants and survived there until the end of the war. She wrote:
“[…] I mostly stayed at home, I tried to see as few people as possible. I lived in constant fear. Sunday was the worst day for me, especially in the summer. Already in the spring I would start counting how many Sundays there would be in the summer, how many times I would have to go to church where everyone would look at me, how many times I would have to go for a walk on Sunday, because if I did not leave at all, it would confirm all the suspicions.”
Living in a house or a room rented in a village with the use of false identity documents was closest to hiding in a city or with “Aryan papers” in general. However, it was unique due to the specificity of the rural community, the curiosity of neighbours, greater social control, and less anonymity than one enjoyed in urban centres. For these reasons, hiding in a village seems to have been more difficult than in a city.
There were naturally cases of people hiding in the countryside in the very literal sense, without ever leaving the shelter. The hiding places were sometimes arranged in houses, but more often than not they were created in outbuildings. Józef Bielawski hid five Jews in a “double wall” in his house in Miroszów (Miechów District) for 17 months. Merchant Chaim Glück and five other people hid in a masked storage room, 80 cm long and 70 cm wide, in the vicinity of Sambor. It was so cramped “that we could only stand, we couldn't sleep all at the same time, we had our sleep shifts.” Markus Halpern spent 28 months in a bunker under Władysław Kozła's house near Wiśnicz. He recalled:
“The bunker was accessed through the cowshed. It was 1,5 meters high, 1,5 meters wide, some 2 meters long. There were eight of us inside, five children, three adults. We were packed like sardines. […] We were suffocating from the lack of air.”
Rural hideouts were typically arranged in farm buildings, fields, or nearby forests. Two runaways from the labour camp in Trawniki spent 11 months lying under a cowshed in the village of Grabniak. They lived to see liberation. Abram Dula's family of five found shelter on Kazimierz Sodo’s farm in the village of Chruszczyna Wielka (Pińczów District), hiding in a burrow under the pigsty, entered through a masked hole in a trough. Brothers Abram and Awigdor Weit, having escaped from the ghetto, hid in Stanisław Pagos's house in the village of Gruszów Wielki (Dąbrowa District) until liberation. They lived on the farm, periodically staying in the cowshed, in the barn, in the attic, and when Germans or inquisitive neighbours were nearby, they hid in a pit dug in the stable. It was masked with a board covered with cow dung.
In the vicinity of Buczacz, Józef Kornblüh hid for three months in the home of Kaczmarska, a forester’s widow. He paid her 3,000 zlotys per month. In Drop near Radzymin, Dawid Słoń stayed in Konstanty Zastawny's barn for half a year, not having to pay anything. Barns were probably the most common places to hide in the countryside, even for a short time, but villages also offered some other possibilities.
Fela Fischbein and her husband hid in the attic of Katarzyna Dunajewska’s house in Wola Komborska near Krosno. Fela kept a diary. Its regular entries aptly illustrate the plethora of sensations and emotions experienced by the woman and allow us to get deeper understanding of the experience of hiding, incapacitation, dependence on Poles, humiliation, and powerlessness. Sisters Ita Gartenkranz and Brandla Siekierka with their family hid in the attic of the Bylicki family home in Cisie near Mińsk Mazowiecki. Ita recalled after the war: “Cold and hungry, we sat in the attic, completely separated from the outside world. We looked outside through narrow slots in the roof, and that pleased us.” Ita’s sister wrote:
“We immediately entered the attic and life began. It is difficult to call it life, rather slow dying, day after day it was all fear, hunger, dirt, and lice. […] There were times when we didn't feel like human beings. We were like animals, just waiting to be fed. In a way, it was better than thinking about the future. The days were passing slowly one after another, no change, except for the moods of our hosts. We knew that crying or complaining would not help us, we had to keep going. The days were so hot that it was hard to endure. There was no water, the children were simply suffocating, we longingly awaited the evening and the coolness. I lost hope that it would ever end, I thought we would die and that would be the end of that.”
However, they all survived the war.
The attic in the house of aforementioned Józef Bielawski became a shelter for the Spokojny family of four from Działoszyce. However, they were soon denounced, “the police came, dragged them out of the attic and killed them in pits.” Chaim Pomeranc hid in the attic of Jan Niedziałek’s house in the village of Wodynie (Siedlce District). He “very often left from the Niedziałek family farm and returned to it after some time, hiding in the attic of the barn, to which the Niedziałeks brought him food.” After a longer absence, he returned to the farm in March 1943. He was “very exhausted, chilled to the bone, he slept one night in my apartment, and the following days he hid in the attic above the cowshed on my farm. […] Chaim Pomeraniec [actually Pomeranc – ed.] stayed in my attic for two weeks. Due to frostbite on his legs, he could not walk. All he did was lay on hay, groan loudly from pain, and ask me to take him to the Blue Police, because he could not live like this.” Jan Niedziałek and his son Zygmunt indeed notified the so-called Blue Police; Pomeranc was killed, and the Niedziałeks were acquitted in a trial held after the war.
Alter Szymszynowicz hid in a pit dug under the hosts' house:
“It occurred to me that I should remove a plank in the corner of the room. I dug up the soil below and made a hideout for myself. I dug the pit in such a way that I could [hide] there sitting down. […] While sitting, I couldn't stretch my feet. The pit was as wide as my back. I couldn't make it wider because otherwise someone walking on the floor would hear that there was a hole underneath, they would think there was a pit or a basement there. I spent over eight months in this dark ditch, full of worms and moisture. I would leave the pit only for a few hours at night, to sleep in the attic.”
Fela Grün hid with her mother and brother in a similar pit, dug under the floor of the pantry in farmer Franciszek Sołtys’s house, in the village of Czarkówka (Siemiatycze District). Five Jews: paediatrician Tauba Goldstein with her husband Feiwel, Doctor Schneiberg, and Doctor Marek Rubinstein with his wife Szifra, found a hiding place under the floor of Wiktoria Strusińska’s kitchen, in a potato storage measuring 3 × 2 × 1.55 m. A Jewish woman known as “Lunia” stayed in a potato pit in the field of the Smuniewski family in Koryciny (Siedlce District). In the spring of 1943, she was killed with an axe by Józef Olędzki and Marian Smuniewski. Also hiding in a potato pit near Zambrów was merchant Fajwel Słowik. He was luckier than Lunia because he managed to survive. Irena Lipszyc hid for six weeks in a potato cellar and later in an isolated dilapidated hut. Wolf Rauchwerg hid in a cellar filled with water in Mętów (Lublin District), and Zehawa Roth – in a cesspit in a village near Złoczów.
Rut Leisner and her family hid for several months in a pit “not much larger than a grave, at the back of the barn” on a farm in Godulin near Vilnius. The Gold family: fourteen-year-old Krysia, seven-year-old Róża, “older brother, two uncles, and an aunt” took refuge in a “bunker under the shed” in “a certain village" located 24 km away from Czarniecka Góra near Kielce. Their parents were initially making money by selling goods in the nearby villages, but later:
“They caught mummy and daddy on a train and sent them to Germany. We were then left at the mercy of the peasants. We paid them a lot and they gave us 20 dkg of bread and six unpeeled potatoes every day. […] We had three openings in the bunker and there was a bit of light on clear days, but otherwise – it was completely dark. We lay there day and night. In the spring, when the snow was melting, water would pour into the bunker and soak everything, and in the winter, we were freezing. And so we lay there for half a year, a year, a year and a half. The woman from the farm complained a lot about having to hide us, we gave her everything and we had nothing left. If someone told us: give me two pennies or I will kill you, we would not give the money to them, because we didn’t have it. We were all starving, none of us could walk anymore. In the end, the woman refused to give us water, so my brother went out at night, drank from a puddle, and died. We buried him in the woods at night. Once my uncle left the bunker and never came back. We sat in hiding for 27 months until the Russians came. We did not know how to walk and even now we still have very weak legs, and Róża is always sad, she often cries, and does not want to play with other children.”
Having escaped from the Białystok ghetto, Rachela Kapłańska hid with her mother, brother, and three other Jews in a dugout near Chomice (Wysokie Mazowieckie District). Gerszon Tabak from Zambrów took shelter in another dugout near Brzozów-Solnik (Białystok District) together with Noske Jablinka and Ida Buckowska. Four Jews from Góra Kalwaria hid in a dugout in the field of Jan Krzysztofoszak (without his knowledge) in Wólka Gruszczyńska (Garwolin District). In the spring of 1943, they were denounced by Henryk Radzik and killed on the spot by policemen and gendarmes. Pinches Figerhut hid in a pit dug in the field near Dubno, accompanied by his wife for the first three months and then staying there alone for another ten months. Six-year-old Buzia Wajner and her four-year-old sister Szulamit also hid in the fields, roaming the vicinity of Rokitno after losing their parents. As Buzia recalled: “People would give us bread, but no one let us spend the night in their homes. We learned to sleep in a field, in an orchard, and sometimes we sneaked into a barn.”
The three-member Lejber (Liber) family, parents with a fourteen-year-old son, hid in a pile of straw in a field in the village of Jastrzębia (Grójec District). In 1943, sixty-year-old Hersz Jud and eighteen-year-old Kajła Miller found shelter in a ditch in the fields adjacent to the village of Żurawka near Otwock.
Aforementioned Arie Klonicki spent several weeks in a field near the village of Trybuchowce near Tarnopol, hiding with his wife Malwina and his sister-in-law. Their son, Adam, was left in Trybuchowce in the care of the family’s former maid, Franka Wąsikowa. The Wąsik family also kept the diary that Arie wrote from 5 to 22 July 1943, while sitting in the field. Here are some excerpts:
“During the day we are devoured by the heat, and at night we suffer from the cold. Nevertheless, if we were sure that this is our greatest concern – we would be happy. Adam, our son, is at Franka's home. […] We decided not to leave the field, even at night, so that no one would notice our presence. That's why we can't see our Bubele. […] Last night, on the eighth, I did not write. There was heavy rain at seven and we got wet. We waited until 1am for the rain to stop, having been exposed to the downpour for six hours, but it was incessant. We left the field and went to our peasants. The man was afraid to give us shelter at home and put us in a potato hole where we spent the whole day. Because of the darkness I could not write. […] Yesterday I did not write. It was horribly cold. On the evening of 9 July an icy wind began to blow, and it continued all day yesterday. It hasn't stopped blowing yet. It is terribly uncomfortable. The gusts penetrate us to the bones. Last night we were unable to sleep, and also today we were barely able to close our eyes. […] The sky is obscured by clouds. A cold wind is blowing. We are waiting for the moment when the sun comes out and warms up our frozen bodies. […] Constant downpours laid the grain in the field. As a result, we were noticed by a passing peasant. […] I don't know if I will be able to continue my diary. As far as I know, these could be my last words. I'm off for now because it's raining!”
The Klonicki couple hid in the field until autumn, then moved to the forest. They were killed in January 1944.
The topography of the countryside made it possible to hide in the woods, with the surrounding villages and settlements serving as a supply base. Hejnoch Nobel from Izbica fled to the forest after surviving an execution and, injured, scrambling out of the mass grave. After a few days, he reached the farm of a Polish acquaintance in Wólka Orłowska (Krasnystaw District). As he himself recalled:
“I asked him to take me in and if he didn’t not want to, then he should bury me when I died, because I felt that I was close to death. He put me in his outbuildings. He treated the wound and fed me. I stayed there for a few weeks. But his wife was very angry that he was sheltering me and putting the whole family at risk. So he took me to the forest and dug a pit for me there. He brought me food. I stayed there, never going out during the day, only at night. It was very hard for me, especially in the winter, but I survived thanks to Myżoła's help. This is how I held out until the arrival of the Red Army.”
Hiding in the woods were also three fugitives from Tykocin who had jumped out of a train:
“After long talks, the two brothers, Stasiek and Józef Rożkowski, agreed to hide us. We hid by the lake for the first four weeks. The peasants brought us food. Severe frost came and we were lying naked and barefoot by the lake. […] Around November, Christians prepared a shelter for us, 200 meters from the colony, in the woods. On the first day, they covered us with a layer of soil so thick that we almost suffocated. There was no air coming at all. Fortunately, it quickly got dark, and we opened the lid a little. We stayed in the shelter for 10 months.”
Florian Majewski (Mosze Aron Lajbcygier) survived in a self-built dugout in the forest near Siucice (Piotrków Trybunalski District). Herszek Goldberg and three other people hid in trenches in the Cieleśnica Forest near Biała Podlaska. After the war, Goldberg testified that “many Jews were hiding [in this forest] and were later caught. As a result, only four of us survived, three men and a woman.” A bunker in the forest near Jędrzejów (Minsk District) was the hiding place of five Jews. In the spring of 1943, it was accidentally discovered by Poles cutting down a tree nearby. Three Jews managed to escape, while two (Jankiel Fiksztejn and another man whose name remains unknown) were caught, taken to the Germans, and killed.
About 40 Jews hid in a forest bunker near Sambor. They were later joined by two girls – Chuwa and Estera Weicher. Initially, the Jews did not want to let them in, “one person said: why should I feed children whom I don’t know when mine are dead.” The bunker was very well-organised. In their post-war testimony, the sisters said that there was a stove, supplies, and even a shoemaker who mended shoes. After the bunker was exposed, they moved deeper into the forest and built a new one: “We were far from the village, and we were starving because it was difficult to access the settlement due to heavy snow. A few of us made skis out of wood and ventured out to the old bunker, where there was a hidden supply of food. We cooked out in the open. We dried whole rye ears and ate them. Sometimes at night we stole a calf or a cow from somewhere, and we had meat. Everything was eaten, even the skin was charred and then boiled.”
Some hideouts were carefully planned and prepared, meant for a long stay. Such was the case of the above-described bunker or the hideout in the forest near Jezierzany, where Irena Monis stayed with her mother and a group of Jews for several weeks:
“We sat in a shelter underground, it was built in a fantastic way, architecture-wise. It was three meters high and made of wood. It was a deep ditch with bunks on two floors. It was covered with a layer of wood, then soil, and then pine needles. Conifers were planted over it. That way one couldn’t notice that something was underneath. The entrance was circular, and the closure was designed like a pot that closed from the inside. There were needles with a top in the centre of this vessel and when closing and shaking it – the needles were strewn all around and there was no trace left of the bunker. […] We always walked on all fours in the forest so as not to break any branches. That way if anyone came there, they would see that it was a virgin area, a forest so deep that there was nobody there.”
The six-member Kołatacz family from Skała stayed in an equally carefully planned and built hideout for over two years. In the autumn of 1942, they turned for help to a forester's family living in the hamlet of Bocieniec in the Ojców forest inspectorate. The house was in the woods, off the beaten track. There was a shelter under the shed, built in September 1939. When the Janczarski family agreed to hide Kołatacz family, they decided to expand the existing bunker. The work lasted several weeks. At night, clay was removed from dug out corridors and spread around the area so as not to leave any visible traces.
“We made a connection between the main bunker and the house, more than ten meters long. It was a narrow, low corridor with a hatch leading directly into the bedroom […]. The entrance was masked with a light sliding wardrobe. […] The corridor was planned in such a way that it would run near the corner of the room where the tiled stove was located. This made it possible to install a small iron stove warming the shelter underneath […]. The second passage was dug from the shelter to the cowshed, and its exit was masked with… manure. […] There was a barn above the cowshed. […] A small shelter between sheaves of straw, with an appropriately masked entrance, was set up in the barn. […] The third underground passage from the ‘bunker,’ as the shelter was called by Kołataczs, led about twenty meters to the west, to the edge of the forest. […] The main, most often used entrance to the bunker was located in a shed under a horse-drawn cart that was always standing there. It was accessed by a narrow ladder through a suitably masked hatch. Pots with food were delivered this way and buckets of waste were taken out. […] An emergency connection with the shelter was […] a concrete, vertically mounted pipe with a diameter of about twenty centimetres. It could be used to lower a bottle of milk or a few slices of bread on a string if, for any reason, the main hatch could not be used.” The whole family survived the war.
In the autumn of 1943, a Jewish woman hid with her daughter (their surname is unknown) in a raspberry bush near the forest in the village of Helenów (Radzyń District). A Jewish boy, also unidentified, found shelter in the shrubs growing on the fields of Bartłomiej Witkowski (Minks District) in the summer of the same year. Also in 1943, a group of six Jews went into hiding in a field in the village of Buszyce (Grodzisk District): three Brzeziński brothers (two older ones, Marian and Henryk, were shoemakers, the third, Adam, was still a boy, disabled), two sisters, Genowefa and Salomea Siajkówna (Szajkówna), and Melson. In the summer, they hid in three hideouts dug in grain fields. They were rounded up and caught, handed over to the Germans and killed. After escaping from the Brańsk ghetto, Chawa Okoń was also hiding in grain fields with her two sisters and brother. As she recalled:
“We hid in rye; we had no contact with anyone. We suffered from cold, hunger, and thirst. Our food consisted of turnips, carrots, and rye grains. It rained every day. There were months without a spoonful of warm food or a piece of bread. We would go into the fields to get a few potatoes, which we cooked in the forest to ward off hunger.”
Teenager Cypora Frydman hid – and survived – in a booth by a lake near Włodawa. After losing her parents in September 1942, she briefly stayed at a peasant’s house, but he soon kicked her out. She then found shelter by the lake. As she recalled, she had money because her mother had sewn golden roubles into her clothes:
“All the peasants from the village knew me because each of them had come to us to the mill or the groat shed and none of them informed on me, although everyone knew that I was hiding by the lake. Sometimes they gave me bread for free, sometimes some milk, most often I drank water from the ditches. I would return from the village late in the night and hide in my booth again.”
“The endless necessity to lie down, and we have been lying down for almost five weeks now, has exhausted us to such an extent that we cannot stand on our feet anymore. We try to walk in the cell underneath, but we wobble like little children. […] Lying down and fear have worn us out. We feel overwhelming fear at all times, like when a dog barks or when someone talks louder in the yard […], and we are sitting in that pit scared, listening to the sounds from the outside, eyes wide open, panting from lack of air, out of breath, losing the sense of time, not eating or drinking, almost lifeless. This overwhelming fear engulfs us all, like a flame that engulfs an object drenched in gasoline, it stretches and plays with our nerves, torments, and exhausts us,” Irena Monis wrote in her diary on 10 June 1943.
Staying in a hideout, not only in the countryside, was arduous and exhausting. Hiding was obviously an extremely difficult psychological experience, associated with feelings difficult to express. The daily perseverance required a great deal of effort, and living in hiding was constantly accompanied by fear, tension, and anxiety. Fela Fischbein described those feeling in her diary:
“Fear, this desperate, overwhelming fear which you confront directly when you are facing death, is beyond words […]. I sleep badly, cry often, lose my memory, make mistakes in speaking, and I am a nervous wreck deep inside. It’s no wonder; when you experience so many discomforts, worries, and fear, you really have to be made of iron to withstand it. But not for long. I can't anymore, I can't. I am completely exhausted.”
When the tension and fear eased, there came monotony, boredom, and stillness, all equally unbearable. This was mentioned, among others, in the account by Ada Schwerdt, who was hiding with her father in the basement of peasant Chlubek’s house in the village of Rybniki:
“My father had his pipe with him and taught me to smoke. I sat for hours in the corner of the permanently dim room, smoking the pipe, and watching the smoke rise to the ceiling.” The feeling of apathy also features in the recollections of Gina Mehr, who hid for 21 months in a village near Zimna Woda (in the vicinity of Lviv) with her husband, watching the world through a cigarette hole burned in a curtain: "we were overwhelmed by insane apathy […] we felt like small flies in a spider's web, trapped, with no way out.”
There are few diaries from the times of the Holocaust whose authors had an in-depth insight into their own psyche and were able to precisely distinguish, name, and describe their own feelings. It is hardly surprising – prolonged suffering makes people dull, wreaks havoc on their minds, limits their perspective of time, and deprives them of the full range of human emotions. Suffering fills all available mental space and sequesters the cognitive and emotional capabilities of the person experiencing it. The suffering human becomes paralysed: they are not able to create or even experience the world around them. Suffering has different contents and meanings; for many Jews in hiding, the dominant feeling was paralysing fear which clouded reason and made it impossible to perceive the subtleties of various experiences.
In her diaries, Aleksandra Sołowiejczyk-Guter was able to accurately analyse her own emotions – the dread almost driving her insane, the fear of death combined with a simultaneous desire to die. She was hiding on “Aryan papers” and one day, sitting on a deckchair in a village near Warsaw, she wrote down:
“Sometimes it seems to me that I'm heading straight for madness; incessantly, without a moment's rest, no matter what I do, it seems to me that I see the police coming to pick me up. A postman's hat, someone raising their voice, the gaze of a passer-by from behind the fence, it all drowns me in deadly fear, covers me with cold sweat. At night I lie staring sleeplessly into the darkness, listening to every rustle, constantly on watch, with my nerves strained to the extreme, to the point where my mental nervousness turns into physical pain. This seemingly peaceful, quiet, comfortable life is in fact an unspeakable torment. This is not normal human fear anymore, it is an illness, an obsession, something called ‘obsessive-compulsive disorder’ in some psychology textbook, which supposedly drives people to suicide. The thought of suicide becomes more and more persistent. But again, the inertia is too great to make an active manifestation of will, to go to a railroad track or a bridge over the Vistula. If I could get hold of poison, a revolver, something that wouldn't require this amount of energy to go out to the outer world! What a strange paradox that I cannot understand. I dream about death as a liberation from my torment, and at the same time the reason for this torment is the fear of death.”
The fear of death, the fear of decomposition of the body is a universal human existential experience. The trauma of death is tamed in various ways. I am convinced that different kinds of death are feared in a different way. Fear of death inflicted by another person has a different character, emotional colour, and density than fear of dying of illness or old age. Death by the hand of another human being is a transgression of a barrier that seems insuperable. How do you face another person – similar to you or completely alien? – with whom it is impossible to reach any understanding, who is a step away and yet separated by a bottomless abyss filled with an irresolvable internal conflict, the final breakdown of humanity, despair, and terror? How to understand this feeling of being abandoned by other human beings, the bitter, cruel disappointment and disillusionment with humanity?
Awaiting one’s own death must be an immensely painful and tense experience, so unbearable that it is not surprising that it may provoke suicidal thoughts. The fear of death can be worse than the death itself, as Gina Mehr aptly remarked in her account: “It is difficult to describe what is happening in one’s heart in such a moment, what they experience facing death, all thoughts suddenly disappear, the brain does not work at all, only the heart is pounding, with all its instincts defending itself against the end, this indescribable fear is surely more awful than death itself.”
Facing this overwhelming fear of death, some people found solace in their faith. Gina Mehr's husband, Arko, “was a believer, he still found consolation in prayer. He said prayers regularly, he sang psalms, he observed the Sabbath, we even worked out a calendar of Jewish holidays. We still do not know whether it was correct, but we followed it nonetheless. We fasted on some days, like Yom Kippur, on Passover we ate unleavened pancakes baked on the stove. It gave him satisfaction and sense of fulfilled duty, but I did not feel the same. I tried to tune into his religiosity, I also sang psalms, but for me it was just a way to fill torpid hours, without the soothing effect it had on my husband. Our tragedy killed all faith in me, and I was crushed by the awareness that out life, for which we fought so stubbornly, was worthless.”
Fela Fischbein also tried to set the record straight, or rather bargain, with God. Her tool in the “negotiations” was fasting for the successful settlement of various matters – especially when, hidden in an attic, she was unable to come out herself and was forced to send someone to fetch things stored at her friends' house in Iwonicz. In her diary, she noted:
“Today I am fasting for things to be successfully handled. I made a neyder a long time ago that I would fast every time I send someone to fetch me things from Iwonicz.” The fast did not work and Fela did not get her things back. A few days later, she repeated her efforts: “Today I was fasting again. I sent to Iwonicz for things. He again returned with nothing. My husband laughed at me for fasting and not getting the things I wanted, and yet I will fast again so that God has mercy on us and I get these things." The following trip was once again unsuccessful, so Fela made plans to fast again on 22 May: “Monday. I am fasting because Mr. St[aszek] is going to Iwonicz for the fourth time. At 3 o'clock I felt dizzy. I started to eat. My husband laughed at me: you broke the fast, so the things will come. And indeed, Mr. St[aszek] brought something this time.”
Wandering, hiding, focusing on survival, on persevering “to the end” required mobilising all the energy and life forces, which did not leave much space or time for in-depth self-reflection. “Each survived day was an eternity. One kept on living only to push that time further, hoping that maybe tomorrow would bring salvation,” Ada Kanarek-Nawon wrote. However, instead of salvation, tomorrow often brought the loss of a hideout, uncertain wandering, and further torment.
Prof. Barbara Engelking, ed. Mateusz Szczepaniak, October 2021
* * *
The above text is an abridged version of the chapters “Wędrowanie i błądzenie” and “Ukrywanie” from Barbara Engelking’s monograph: „Jest taki piękny słoneczny dzień…”. Losy Żydów szukających ratunku na wsi polskiej 1942–1945, Warszawa 2011, pp. 55–75, 77–94 [English: Such a Beautiful Sunny Day. Jews Seeking Refuge in the Polish Countryside, 1942–1945, transl. J. Michalowicz, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem 2016].
- Strategies for the survival of Jews on the “Aryan side” »
- Hiding Places of Jews in occupied Poland »
- Jews hiding in cities »
- Jews hiding in cemeteries »
- Cupboard as a vestige of the Holocaust in Polish culture »
- Preserved hideouts of Jews in Poland »
- Architecture of hideouts from the times of the Holocaust: »
- The everyday life of Jews in hiding »