Jews hiding in cities
Why did Jews decide to leave a ghetto and go over to the “Aryan side”? What characterised the experiences of Jews hiding in cities during the Holocaust? How and where did Jews find refuge in the cities and towns of the General Government? Could changing their religion have saved them? What were “Aryan papers” and what was a “good appearance”? What was the importance of knowing the Polish language on the “Aryan side”? What were the greatest dangers of hiding in the cities? Read the study by Dr Martyna Grądzka-Rejak about Jews hiding in cities. 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
- Decision to leave the ghetto. Jews moving to the "Aryan side" in the cities and towns of the General Government ⇩
- Baptism in the Roman Catholic Church. Jewish converts during the German occupation ⇩
- "Aryan papers," "good appearance," knowledge of the Polish language. Jews hiding under an assumed identity ⇩
- Anonymous in cities? Jews in hiding and contacts with Polish acquaintances ⇩
- Soundlessly, with no sign of life. Jews hiding in urban hideouts ⇩
- Polish-Jewish relations in the cities and towns of the General Government ⇩
The conditions awaiting Jews hiding in the cities and towns of the General Government during the Holocaust were completely different from those in the countryside, which was due to a number of topographic, architectural, and social factors. The Jews who decided to leave the ghetto and seek shelter on the so-called Aryan side would either assume a fake identity or stay in a hideout. Their strategies and opportunities varied depending on where they were fighting for survival.
“Not even for a single moment could I allow myself to forget that […] I had lived in Kraków for six years before the war, that many people knew me here, both Poles and Jews, and that no documents, and even the best Aryan appearance, would help if someone informed the Gestapo or simply turned me in to the nearest Blue or German policeman.", Maria Hochberg-Mariańska.
Decision to leave the ghetto. Jews moving to the "Aryan side" in the cities and towns of the General Government
Facing of the Holocaust, some Jews decided to take up the unequal fight and chose various so-called survival strategies – for themselves and their loved ones. It was not a common attitude, which resulted from many factors. One of them were the legal changes introduced by Germans in October 1941, limiting the possibilities of Jews to move outside the perimeter of the ghetto. Illegally leaving the area of Jewish districts was punishable by death. We do not know exactly how quickly information about the extermination of subsequent Jewish communities was reaching the residents of ghettos. The news was probably quickest to spread in large cities – district capitals. We also do not know how ghetto inhabitants reacted to these reports. Who believed them and who considered them unsubstantiated rumours? The memoirs of Survivors show that the news of mass murders of Jews was frequently rejected and treated as fabrication. This is why deportations to death camps took many ghetto residents by surprise.
Szymon Datner, a Holocaust survivor and later historian, tackled these issues in his research. In his opinion,
“the rapid course of the systemic extermination of Polish Jews largely explains why so few of them survived. The awareness that ‘displacement’ did not mean ‘going to work in the east’ – as Germans were officially claiming to lull the victims into a false sense of security – was very slowly building in the minds of ghetto prisoners, as they were hearing more and more rumours of Jews being deported to sites of mass extermination, which were impossible to verify and treated with mistrust.”.
Some Jews believed until the very end that they would survive – after all, they could still be useful as a source of labour. Others were paralysed by fear and perceived the ghetto as a relatively safe, familiar space. Many did not want to leave behind their family and friends. Escaping in a large group was out of the question, so they wanted to stay together until the end. The German genocidal campaign varied in its efficiency depending on the place and time period. It took on a slightly different form in cities than it did in the countryside. But the longer Operation Reinhardt – the planned extermination of Jews from the General Government and the Białystok District – lasted, the more painfully aware Jews were becoming that the Germans were in fact doing what once seemed inconceivable – systematically murdering defenceless children, women, and men.
In the end, only a handful of people decided to seek shelter on the "Aryan side." Sometimes the decision to do so was preceded by preparations, searching for support outside the ghetto. Most often, however, the escape was made on the eve of a deportation or execution as the last resort to save one’s life. In the book Papierosiarze z Placu Trzech Krzyży [The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square], Józef Ziemian thus wrote about Warsaw Jews who left the ghetto:
“[V]ery few actually managed to get outside the wall, although their escape route was often very complicated. Having reached the so-called Aryan side, they assumed a more or less clandestine existence. They hid in various cellars and ruins or stayed in hiding with Poles by the power of friendship or… money.”
In the case of cities of the General Government, especially large ones, such as Warsaw, Kraków, or Lviv, fugitives from ghettos had to face many dangers awaiting them on the outside, for instance confrontations with shmaltzovniks – blackmailers hanging around the ghetto boundaries. Noemi Szac-Wajnkranc described her encounter with shmaltzovniks right after reaching the "Aryan side" of Warsaw: "[T]hey are already on guard, as the ‘outposters’ [Jews working for Germans outside the ghetto – translator’s note] inform me. All day long they stand watch to make sure that none of the ‘outposters’ goes into the city. If one dares, they surround him immediately to get ransom, and when he doesn’t have enough money, they take him to the military police.” At times, fugitives from the ghetto were robbed of the money or valuables with which they had collected to pay for the hideout, which forced them to return to the ghetto.
One of the survival strategies of Jews, especially in cities, was to be baptised and live as neophytes. The great majority of those seeking conversion were members of the intelligentsia or the middle class. They were assimilated Jews who spoke Polish and had lived among the Polish society for years. The phenomenon of Jews seeking baptism could be noticed since the first months of the occupation and intensified with the German campaigns of displacing the Jewish population or setting up ghettos in individual cities. For example, the application for baptism submitted by Abraham Roman Weindling, an architect from Kraków, to the parish in Borek Fałęcki on 26 August 1941 read:
“he has not kept his home in the vein of the Jewish religion and only had contacts with people from the Catholic community. He has also thought about assuming the Catholic faith for a long time – only now, having been expelled from Krakow, where he owns four townhouses, and having had enough free time for several months, he has been diligently attending classes in religion twice a week and wishes, having discovered the truth of the Catholic religion, to assume the holy faith.”.
Weindling was forced to settle in Borek Fałęcki in 1940 as part of the German campaign to resettle the Jewish population from the capital of the General Government in order to make it judenrein. His predicament was additionally complicated by the fact that a year later, on 28 May 1941, the boundaries of Kraków were officially expanded and came to incorporate several neighbouring towns, including Borek Fałęcki. Jews living in those localities were obliged to move to the Kraków ghetto. However, Weindling was allowed to receive the sacrament and thus he stayed in Borek Fałęcki.
Another neophyte seeking baptism during the war, Róża Reibscheid-Feliks from Kraków, recalled: “The situation worsened when the displacements began [forced resettlement of Jews outside the boundaries of Kraków carried out in 1940 – ed.]. My husband received a permit to stay in Kraków, but we didn’t take the opportunity because we felt the approaching danger. We decided to leave Kraków on ‘Aryan papers,’ and since we had no contacts that could provide them, we followed the advice of our friends and neighbours and decided to be baptised. The decision was not easy, but time was pressing – the ghetto had just been set up – and we had no other way to save ourselves.’
In the first months of the war, candidates for baptism would go through several weeks of preparation before being given permission to take the sacrament. Applications were officially filed and accepted until October 1942. Later on, the process was taking place in secret, and some clergymen would issue baptism certificates without additional procedures. Many neophytes living in cities, for example Warsaw, ended up in the ghettos anyway. The Germans identified Jews according to racial and not religious criteria. However, some Jewish people managed to avoid this fate and were saved by conversion to Catholicism.
"Aryan papers," "good appearance," knowledge of the Polish language. Jews hiding under an assumed identity
Many Jews hid in the cities and towns of the General Government, either in their hometowns or in other places to which they managed to move during the occupation. They could survive there quasi-legally or by staying hidden all the time. The former method was only available to those who had the so-called “good appearance” and managed to obtain forged documents (baptism certificate, employment certificate, registration document, or Kennkarte). These documents constituted their new identity and theoretically protected them in the event of being checked by the Germans. They also helped them avoid – at least partially – the threat of blackmailers. The Jews who escaped outside the ghetto and did not have the so-called “Aryan papers” had to stay in hiding, away from the eyes of the outside world.
False documents could be obtained for a fee or with the selfless help of friends. They were often produced by communal clerks or city officials, as they had access to empty forms. The fee depended, among other factors, on the quality of the produced documents. However, it was extremely difficult to obtain well-forged papers, and therefore they were much more expensive. A false identity was added to accompany the assumed names. Some Jews posed as Polish displaced persons or family members of Polish intelligentsia forced to change their place of residence. Others pretended to be relatives of their Polish helpers. Children were presented as war orphans or the offspring of distant family members in need of support. Those in hiding had to learn to live in a new role. Henryk Grynberg recalled:
„“you have to be careful at all times not to make a blunder, not to forget something, not to make a mistake, and at the same time to give the impression of sincerity and ease. Improvise. And always be ready to improvise. Never be surprised. And play a role which you had no time to learn.”
Each case was different, but there were several factors which had the greatest impact on the chances of survival "on the surface" in cities. Some of them depended on the hiding people themselves, although even the best camouflage could be exposed. The so-called “good appearance” – fair hair, blue eyes, and "Slavic" looks – helped boost self-confidence. This is how it was described by an anonymous author:
“So many beautiful girls attracted attention with their exotic beauty. In vain they bleached their jet-black braids; the dark eyes kept their longing expression. There was danger at every corner, at every tram stop. An old acquaintance here, a blackmailer there, an undercover cop here, and a policeman with too penetrating eyes there again, and finally a personal search – in a word, every road is riddled with obstacles through which you have to beat your way.”
Knowledge of Polish customs and religious rites also increased the chances of survival. It was important to have a good command of Polish or German and to use them without an accent or any influences of Yiddish. This was emphasised by Helena Diamant-Fischel, who was hiding in Kraków and its vicinity and for the above-described reasons could not live on the so-called Aryan side:
I was a blonde, bleached of course, but my features are quite Semitic. And my language! In my family home I constantly spoke German, and I rarely used Polish before I got married. To this day, I do not pronounce the whistling consonants properly and my accent, if not Jewish anymore, still sounds foreign.”
In this context, it is worth mentioning the comments made by Teresa Prekerowa, a historian who was involved in helping Jews during the war and was later honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. She pointed out that some of the factors commonly considered to be facilitating survival went completely unnoticed by the Germans:
“For the Germans, the uncertainty of people’s behaviour in the streets was much less perceptible (Poles were not at ease either when facing with the occupation authorities), and in no way did they get suspicious because of someone’s accent, specific phrases used, or a certain customary distinctiveness.”.
These factors, however, were noticed by shmaltzovniks and blackmailers. People from assimilated families or those with close Polish acquaintances had the greatest chance of surviving "on the surface" in the cities and towns of the General Government.
Apart from the so-called “good appearance,” false identity, or proper knowledge, the key element was having financial resources, jewellery, or other valuable things. This made it possible not only to cover living costs, which were not low, but also to pay a ransom – often large – to potential blackmailers. In cities, they were almost everywhere – in the streets, in gateways, at railway stations, in parks. Not only did Jews run the risk of being blackmailed by accidental passers-by, but also by their neighbours living in the same townhouse. After the war, Survivor Dina Landau recalled yet another form of blackmail and paying for silence:
“We were hiding in Kraków with Aryan papers. We were going through hell. Nobody wanted to put us up. We already started to regret running away, but there was no turning back. We were taken in by the caretaker of our house in Podgórze. Every day she would tell us to leave, she threatened that she would bring the Gestapo. She simply wanted to get as much money as possible from us. After each brawl, she got 1,000 zlotys. After a few days, she kicked us out and we wandered around Kraków, spending each night in a different place.”
Describing the fate of young Jews hiding in Warsaw, Józef Ziemian emphasised how difficult it was to find shelter in cities: “the matter of hideouts was one of the most difficult problems at that time. Finding a Pole who would be willing to take in a Jew, even for a high fee, was not easy. […] They spent the nights in various ruins, in cellars, in attics. They were strongly discouraged to appear too often in the same place. Someone could notice them and call the police.” Not being conspicuous, not showing up repeatedly in the same places, was of crucial importance.
Staying on the "Aryan side" required caution, constant self-control, but also careful observation of the surroundings. In order to make it out alive, it was necessary to be strong both physically and mentally. It also required a lot of self-confidence. No external aids could help if the person in hiding showed their fear and uncertainty This was mentioned by Pola Korn, who stayed in occupied Kraków: "We recognised each other by the eyes, because even the people in the ghetto did not have such animalic, scared eyes." It was one of the things which exposed hiding Jews to blackmailers. Some factors were sex-specific. Men often feared that they would easily be unmasked due to being circumcised. Franciszka Tusk-Scheinwechsler, a teacher hiding in Warsaw, emphasised what helped her survive:
“You have to keep the appearance of a normal person if you don't want to arouse suspicion. This means you have to walk, work, and pretend to have a life. So I signed up for the library, took the tram to the city, looked for a job, and started saying words that I had stopped using on the ‘other’ side: tomorrow, in a week, in a month… I started living with a look to the future."
There were also cases of people who, having attempted to survive on the "Aryan side" in cities and towns, eventually voluntarily returned to the ghetto. They were motivated by fear, disappointment, being overwhelmed by the hardships of everyday life and constant tension, without any certainty as to where to stay for the next night, anxiety to find work, and fear of denunciation. It all made them think that return could be a better alternative. Some volunteered to work in Germany, considering such departure a safer choice.
Large urban centres gave people anonymity, which was a factor facilitating survival in hiding. In this respect, seeking shelter in smaller towns or in the countryside was much riskier. The feeling that it was more difficult to spot strangers in urban centres gave people an increased sense of security. Nonetheless, it was not as easy as it would seem. In her post-war account, Adina Blady-Szwajgier, a doctor from the Warsaw ghetto, pointed out that paradoxically, the pre-war friends from school, yard, or work could pose a serious threat:
"Because you never knew what kind of human this ‘acquaintance’ with whom in prehistoric times you talked on the street or in a café as ‘human to human’ truly was. They could still be a human who wanted to help you – there were some of those. They could be human enough to scan a once familiar face with a vacant sight, which meant ‘I don't know you, I don't want to know you're here, and I won't tell anyone.’ But they could also be the ones who would come up to you and say: ‘Come with me, Jew’ and lead you straight into German hands, or the ones who would tell you to ‘pay for their silence’ and then strip you of every last penny. All kinds of people were out there. And so there was fear.”
Not only Warsaw, but also smaller cities such as Kraków or Lublin gave a better chance of survival to Jews arriving there from other localities, although they often had to do without contacts or so-called “good addresses” where they could spend at least one night. Maria Hochberg-Mariańska, a Jewish woman hiding in Kraków and its vicinity and an activist of the Żegota Council to Aid Jews, described it as follows:
“Not even for a single moment could I allow myself to forget that […] I had lived in Kraków for six years before the war, that many people knew me here, both Poles and Jews, and that no documents, and even the best Aryan appearance, would help if someone informed the Gestapo or simply turned me in to the nearest Blue or German policeman."
Jews were afraid of meeting old acquaintances and of the consequences of such encounters. Therefore, they often changed their addresses in hiding, and whenever possible, they tried to leave urban centres and intermittently stay in the countryside.
“Hiding in someone else's houses didn’t only mean losing contact with the outside world, the necessity to follow burdensome rules, and being exposed to constant danger. Locked within four walls, doomed to idleness, we were also deprived of our own lives. The men and women who sheltered us, and even their children, had their daily affairs to attend to, problems to be solved, minor troubles and serious worries, some achievements and failures, moments of joy or sorrow. Our existence was empty. We just went on by measuring time. Deprived of our own life we lived someone else's,” said Janina Bauman when describing the loneliness of those in hiding.
Many Jews were only able to survive the Holocaust by staying "below the surface." The hideouts they used could be temporary, medium- or long-term; self-reliant or assisted; sheltering one person or a group. Whole families rarely hid together in cities. For security reasons, it was easier to do it in pairs or alone. It sometimes happened that those in hiding became intimately involved with each other, which resulted in more lasting relationships, but also in pregnancies. Childbirth and staying in a hideout with a tiny baby complicated the situation. Hiding with a new-born was almost impossible for a longer period of time. Women with small children faced a dramatic choice of leaving the shelter. There were also cases of infanticide in hideouts if the woman hadn’t earlier been able to have an abortion.
Sometimes the hiding Jews had at their disposal an entire flat in a townhouse or a room in a single-family house. In other cases, they lived in specially created hideouts in basements, attics, behind furniture, behind walls, and even in very unusual places, such as cemeteries or sewers. The smaller the hideout, the more unbearable the experience of hiding, especially if it was impossible to leave the confined space for many hours. Krystyna Chiger, who hid with her relatives and some other people in the sewers of Lviv, recalled:
“It was uncomfortable, dark, wet and disgusting, but I imagined that most places in the sewer system were just as revolting. […] Our next hiding place turned out to be no better than the burrow he had just abandoned. In many ways, it was even worse. The wind was blowing more violently and was louder, which made the chill even more penetrating. There was nowhere to sit. The ceiling was even lower, and you could hardly image how many rats were running around our feet. Literally a sea of rats that didn't even try to flee when they saw us.”
The accounts of people hiding in the cities often mention that they often had to function like "ghosts," not giving any signs of their presence in a given space. In this respect, it was more difficult for people hiding in multi-family buildings. In order not to be exposed, it was forbidden to talk, prepare meals, use sanitary facilities at certain times, move or even cough, because any noise could raise suspicions. Dawid Fogelman, who was hiding in Warsaw, described it as follows: “We live like Robinson Crusoe, except that he was free, he could move about as he wished, and here we have to live in hiding. We are like people stranded on an island peppered with landmines.” Living under such pressure caused a number of psychological problems, such as mood swings, anxiety and depression, feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness.
Both “on the surface” and in hideouts, Jews tried to introduce certain rituals to their everyday life. Some repetitive practices gave them a substitute of normality. If possible, books or newspapers were read, or minor housework was done. Some people found solace in prayer, although at this stage of their existence many Jews lost their faith. Maria Steczko, hiding in Kraków and the nearby towns, recalled: “Living in constant uncertainty and danger – I so terribly and fervently begged this God, whose existence I doubted many times, to save us. There was no such power on earth that could save us, so we involuntarily raise our eyes and seek God's help and believe that He is there, He must be, despite the fact that such terrible things are happening and that He allows this lawlessness. God – I beg you – have mercy – save us.” However, such testimonies relating to faith are not common.
Whether the so-called “survival strategies” proved to be successful or not depended on many factors, including the relationships of Jews with non-Jewish inhabitants of cities and towns. The regulations successively introduced by the German authorities – marking and isolating Jews from the rest of society, and then closing them in separate districts – affected the mutual perception of the two groups. The Jews, isolated from the rest of the society and absent from the streets since the early stages of the war, became almost “invisible.” When some of them returned to the outside world in an attempt to seek refuge on the "Aryan side" during the so-called liquidation of ghettos, the local inhabitants were forced to respond in some way. Some decided to help despite the possible life-threatening consequences, others did not take any action, for various reasons. Some did not react at all, treated the matter with indifference, looked the other way, and went on about their own affairs. Others still informed to the authorities on the fugitives and their Polish rescuers, which usually resulted in their death. There were also people who committed murders themselves. The attitudes towards Jews seeking help could also change in time and evolve in various, sometimes completely opposite directions. In his book Umschlagplatz, Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz focused on the actions that made it more difficult for Jews to survive. He also raised a number of questions that often cannot be answered:
“I would like to know why Poles blackmailed and betrayed Jews. Precisely Poles and precisely Jews. Precisely in that period. The fact that they betrayed their own is not surprising, I agree with you. There are always those who turn somebody in and there are always those who are turned in. But the fact that they were turning in Jews cannot be explained solely by the eternal characteristics of human nature, that this nature is such and not different, that God created us this way and not another, that is quite poorly. […] I would like to know what was happening in the mind of such a blackmailer when, in 1941 or 1942, he was pushing a Jew or a Jewess to Aleje Ujazdowskie, where I think the Kripo had its seat, and when he was bargaining with that Jew or that Jewess. […] Did they do it for the money and just for the money, or did they have an additional motive? Did they also do it because – I don't know how to put it – there was something in the air, in the atmosphere, that allowed them to do it? Something which prompted them to do so. Something was in the air. Some stench. And they felt it.”
No city or town in the General Government was free from blackmailers. Only the scale of this phenomenon and the motivations of individual people varied.
Due to its size and importance, Warsaw was the city with the some of the greatest numbers of both rescuers and Survivors. Conversely, as pointed out by historian Izrael Gutman, “[t]hese numbers were the lowest in Łódź, which had the second largest Jewish population after Warsaw, but was incorporated into the Reich and the ghetto was tightly isolated.” The situation of hiding Jews and their rescuers in the Lublin District and part of the Warsaw District was additionally influenced by the fact that most death camps were located in their area. The inhabitants of the Radom District were subjected to severe repressions, which had a bearing on Polish-Jewish relations and decisions to provide aid. A greater number of Survivors could be noticed in the District of Galicia, especially in the Lviv Province. This may have been due to the ethnic policy pursued by the Germans, favouring Ukrainians at the expense of local Poles and stirring conflicts between these groups. This contributed to greater solidarity between Poles and persecuted Jews. It seems that residents of large cities were mainly motivated by humanitarian concerns when deciding to provide aid. Some did it selflessly, taking upon themselves the cost of maintenance of the hiding people, others did it for a fee. Some charged the Jews only for the cost of living, others made bank by asking them to pay high fees or surrender other valuables. The aid could be a one-off initiative or a long-term undertaking. It involved individuals, families, and organisations – both secular and associated with the church. Large cities: Warsaw, Kraków, and Lviv boasted branches of the Żegota Council to Aid Jews, financed by the Polish Government-in-Exile, as well as the Bund and other Jewish organisations. People associated with Żegota provided or issued over 50,000 false documents, they also helped in the search for safe flats and donated food and other necessary products to the Jews in need.
It is not known how many Jews hid in cities and towns and how many in the countryside. We will never come to learn the stories of many people who tried to survive on the "Aryan side," because their protagonists either refused to discuss their experiences or did not live to see the end of the war. Some of the rescued, too, were at some point denounced and killed – and they will never tell us about those whom they helped before meeting their tragic end.
Dr. Martyna Grądzka-Rejak, ed. Mateusz Szczepaniak, October 2021
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