Thursday, January 20, 2011


"The only real valuable thing is intuition." - Albert Einstein

The first summer that Sarah, Manek and Zosia survived in the woods was the summer of 1943.  One night Sarah had been awaken to a strange noise.  In the morning, she told her companions about her fear that they had been discovered.  When she told Romek, Fish and Ignash that she had heard the cracking of twigs as if someone was walking nearby, their response was filled with indifference, "Ugh, here we go again", they said, "It could have been an animal."  To that Sarah replied, "By this point I know the difference between an animal and a human being.  I am going!"  So they once again complied in order to pacify the woman's ranting, and moved about 100 meters away.
The following night Romek went to a nearby village.  You see he would go there often to see a girl he had found and had been "seeing".  He would leave during the night and return in the early morning.  This time he returned before dawn, and when he returned he told the story that in the village there was a wedding and all the attendees  got very drunk and started fighting, so they were warned that the police was going to be called to stop the fight.  At that point Romek quickly left.
About an hour or so later, as dawn was breaking, Sara heard some gunfire.  It was only a couple of shots, and Romek commented "You see the police came to the village to break up the fight".  But Sarah was not convinced.  She said, "No way, the shots are too close."  A few minutes later, machine gun fire broke out.  They all wanted to run, the men wanted to run deeper into the forest, away from the village, to try to get away from the gunfire.  But Sara said "No, if two nights ago someone was walking here they  know we are here and will go into the woods looking for us, we should go in the opposite direction, towards the gunfire, but around them to get past them, they were already there."  This time there were no arguments, they all followed Sara.
So they ran into the direction of the gunfire, not directly, they tried to go a little off so that they would get around the shooters, and they came upon a twisty path.  Sara stopped and peaked out.  She saw a German soldier with a gun, pacing back and forth on the path.  They waited a few moments and when his back was turned, she grabbed one child under each of her arms and as quickly and quietly as they could, they crossed the path and ran  away, just as they heard more machine guns and gun shots.
They continued to run about a mile away and until they felt safe enough to just sit.  That night the men decided they wanted to find out what had happened.  Romek and Fish decided to go, while Ignash stayed with Sara and the children.  When they returned 2 1/2 hours later they were very silent.  Sara and Ignash asked what had happened, they would not answer.  The only reply they gave was "Just let's get away from here."  Sara agreed and suggested they go back to where had been hiding.  Romek and Fish answered "It's better if we don't go there."  Sara wanted to see if anyone had survived, she and Ignash insisted on going back.  They were not getting any answers from Romek and Fish and wanted to see for themselves what had happened.  Fish replied that it was impossible to explain and describe, and if Sara was insisting on going, he would take her, but it would be horrible.  Romek stayed behind because they refused to let the children go and see.
What Sara saw was a complete massacre, like nothing she had ever imagined in her worst nightmare.  Bodies of men, women and children were just laying everywhere.  Two of those bodies were her cousins from the barn.  Years later, after the war, Sara found out that there were two survivors that night.  A man and a woman who had fallen during the shooting and were covered with the dead bodies of their friends and family that had fallen on them.  They had laid there very still, pretending to be dead and waited until it was safe to dig themselves out.  The woman was the female cousin of Sara that had escaped to the barn with her.
Winter was coming, find out next time how and where Sara found shelter, and how shelter does not always mean safety.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Forest

Our pleasures were simple - they included survival. Dwight D. Eisenhower

In June of 1942 the people of the Dembice ghetto became just another statistic in the ever increasing death toll and extermination of the Jewish people by the Nazi's.   However, Sarah and her two young children escaped.  Thanks to their friends, the Pilat family, they escaped termination again by one day.
Pilat, Sarah and the children made it through the  city that day, without anyone stopping them.  They met at the outskirts, and started a 3-4 hour journey to the outskirts of the Jaworze D. forest.
Pilat had arranged for a family to take Sarah and her children in for the winter months.  He left them there, and it was the last time they would see Pilat, until after the war.  The family had a daughter that lived with them, she was about 18 years old and mentally challenged.  They were to live in the attic of the house.  Once a day food would be brought to them.  A pail was placed in the corner, and they would relieve themselves in there.  Each night, Sarah would go outside to empty it.  The days were long, Sarah would try to teach the children the alphabet and counting. 
Sarah had a way of becoming "friends" with anyone she met.  She and the woman became friendly.  One day, about 2 months after they arrived, the woman told Sarah she had a secret to share, just don't tell anyone (as if Sarah had anyone to tell).  She was hiding more Jews in the barn, would Sarah like to meet them?  Sarah felt obliged to go and meet these people.  The woman took her to the barn, and when she opened the door, Sarah was surprised to see her 3 cousins were staying there!  They were just as shocked, and riddled her with questions of how did she get there and how did she escape and now they should all be together.  Sarah just said, "we got here on our own, we are fine" and left.  However, when spring started to arrive, the kind Polish woman told Sarah and the others that it was time to leave, she had already kept them for too long, and they had to go.
So Sarah and the children left their shelter, with the 3 cousins, and went into the woods.  They would eat berries and lots of wild mushrooms for survival.  Small twigs and branches were gathered to make a fire, however, they could not risk being caught so they needed to make sure there was not too much smoke.  Not even a week after they left the house they were hiding in, they came upon another, larger group of Jewish people hiding in the woods.  Amongst the group were 3 men that Sarah would spend the next 2 years hiding and surviving with: An old friend, Romek, his friend Fish, and her cousin, Ignash.
When Sarah joined the group she saw that there were too many people.  She told the group that it was too dangerous for all of them to stay in one such big group, they should split into smaller groups in the area.  All of them said, "Oh a woman, always with their ideas, no reason for us to split up, no one is going to notice us, what's the difference?"
Well, Sarah was not going to just stay, she told them "I don't care what any of you do, but I am going to take my children and hide a few meters away."  Romek, Fish and Ignosh did not want her to be on her own, so they agreed to go and stay with her.  The 6 of them left, and it would be the last time that Sarah would see 2 out of her 3 cousins that she had arrived with.
Fall began to approach, and one morning, Sarah woke up and told the men that they better move out from their hiding place.  They said, "Why? What's the matter?"
Sarah responded "During the night I heard something as if someone was walking nearby us!"
Check back soon to find out who it was and how a woman's intuition is something that should not be ignored, and can be a life saver.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Ghetto Escape

"Opportunity often comes in disguised in the form of misfortune, or temporary defeat."
Napoleaon Hill Quotes 

It was the summer of 1942.  Disease, lice, malnutrition and despair was spreading rampantly around the ghetto.  Sarah had found a way to escape at night and go to a Polish friends house to get bread for her two small children.  On her third trip out, however, it was not to go as smoothly as the other two.

When she crawled back through the barbed wire fence and started to walk back home, she felt two people following her.  She walked aimlessly around the streets, for fear of returning home.  Finally, the men stopped her, they were German guards.
"Where are you coming from?" they asked, "No where" she replied.
"So where are you going?" they asked, she answered, "I am just walking, you see I got confused of where to go because I am so hungry, and I do not know where I am going."
"You are lying", they said, "We saw you come through the barbed wire, from the outside.  What did you get?"
"OK", she responded, and took out the loaf of bread, "I snuck out, and saw a store with bread in it and stole the bread from the store."
They hesitated and then responded, "OK, we will let you go, but if we ever catch you again we will kill you.  Not that it makes a real difference anymore, because in the next few days this entire ghetto will be eliminated, and you will be killed anyway.  Now go home."
Sarah continued to wander a bit before returning home.  She knew she had to escape, but did not know where to go. 

Sarah had a few cousins in the ghetto, two male cousins and a female cousin-in-law.  The next morning she seeked them out.  She asked them if they had heard about the elimination of the ghetto.  Yes they had.  She asked them what they were going to do.  There answer was "We don't know about you, but we are going to escape." 
"Take me and the children with you" she pleaded.
"No way can we take you and the KIDS, sorry but no."

She left, and went back home in despair.  It was a Sunday, and when she arrived home a little boy approached her.  "You are a Schonwetter, right?" he asked.  "Yes" she replied. 
"There is a man over there on the other side of the barbed wire, by that house, that  told me to go find the Schonwetter's and bring them back there, he wanted to talk to them".
Now, Sarah had no idea who could want to speak to her, but she went anyway.  When she got to the spot, who was standing there, Pilat!
"I know that by tomorrow morning the entire ghetto will be closed and eliminated.  Get the kids and come back here tonight, you have to escape, and I will take you."
Sarah quickly went to gather the children, and as night fell, she went back to the spot that she met Pilat.  He was waiting on the other side.  He threw a blanket over the barbed wire, and told Sarah to throw each child over and he would catch them.  Now Manek and Zosia were no more than skin and bones at this point, but Sarah was not much more than that herself.  It is amazing the strength you can find when the adrenilane is pumping.  She did as she was told.  Now it was her turn.  Pilat told her to climb the barbed wire fence and he would catch her as well.  She complied.  Once they were all over, he ushered them inside the nearby house, where he had clothes waiting.

You see, when Pilat heard about the ghetto he sprang into action.  He brought Vodka and Kelbasa to the family that lived there earlier that day.  He proceeded to get them very drunk, and they passed out.  They were in this drunken sleep and did not even know what was transpiring in their house.

Sarah and the children quickly changed.  Pilat then gave them their next instructions.  "I will walk out first, out the door, down the street and through the city.  Sarah, you and Zosia will follow a few feet behind, then Manek, you will follow by yourself.  Everyone look straight ahead, do not look down, do not turn around and do not stop.  If anyone stops any of you, the others must keep going, if they stop me, pass me and keep going with out looking.  Just keep walking."  And so they started out.  You have to remember that Manek was not even 10 years old, and Zosia, barely over 5.

I remember when my own daughter turned 5.  At the birthday party my father came over to me, and with a tear in his eye he said "Can you imagine that this was how old I was when it started, and your aunt when she had to go through so much."  We just linked arms and both said a silent prayer, "Thank G-d that they do not have to live through such a nightmare."  I think it was even harder when my sister's son turned 5, maybe because he is a boy.  I know that my father said something similar to her.  I wonder if he sometimes looks at his grandchildren, and perhaps at my sister and I when we were growing up, and thinks of the childhood that was stolen from him and that he never got a chance to experience.  It warms my heart that he is able to share in his grandchildren's lives and get a little piece of that experience he never had.  I sometimes look at my own children and think of my grandmother.  I can not begin to fathom the emotions she must have been going through.  However, her bravery, courage and uncanny intuition got her through. 

The Schonwetter journey now begins, the next 3 years of survival were not easy.  Check back soon to start on this amazing adventure.  The goodness of people will always be a recurrent theme, but the ugliness of what they had to live through may sometimes cloud your perception.  The instinct to survive is strong, and Sarah lived by it.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Ghetto

"When I look into his eyes, I can see the sadness.
When I listen to him speak, I can hear the anger.
When I wake from his screaming, I can feel the fear.
What kind of being could do this to another?
The kind that can not see, nor hear, nor feel the sadness and anger and fear within,
Yet, this is no excuse."

It was the spring of 1942 when Sarah and her two small children arrived at the Dembitz ghetto.  They would only be here for a few short months until their escape in June of 1942, but those months seemed like an eternity.

The ghetto had been established in 1941. Dembitz was a city that had a population of over 2,000 Jews.  In September of 1939 the Germans had invaded and soon established the "Jewish government", and later consolidated it into the Judenrat.  In the beginning of 1941 they decided that they were going to establish the ghetto.  There was numerous discussions over where this ghetto would be.  "The Jews of Dembitz had to leave their dwellings, homes, stores, and workshops that had been set up through the course of centuries, and concentrate themselves into the designated place, which included only one alley out of all the roads in the city, the Potters' Lane (Tepper Gesel) and the lots that extended to the infantry barracks, where the S. S. resided." (quote from jewishgen)  Barbed wire was placed around this small part of the city where the Jews were to live.  There was one gate that was guarded by the Germans, but once a Jew entered, they could not leave without a permit.  Those that went to "work" were trucked out in the morning and brought back at night.  There were not enough homes and rooms for all the Jews, and barracks were built to house people.  Each person was given only a set amount of square meters to live in. 

When Sarah and the children arrived, they had to try to find shelter.  They walked looking for space.  There were so many people in these small homes, and every inch of flooring, on all levels were occupied.  Finally, they were able to find a small space in the attic of a home.  They had to climb a ladder to get in, and they would take their space there amongst so many other Jews.  No one really had any belongings, and everyone just slept on the floor.

The days all seemed to mesh together.  Food was very sparce.  A "kitchen" space had been marked out.  Basically, tables were set up, and people were assigned each day to bring large pots into this area.  The Jews would line up.  With bowls in their hands, they would each receive one ladel of "soup" water, and a small slice of bread.  That was it for the day.

Disease and lice was everywhere.  Sarah shaved the childrens heads to help alleviate the painful itching from the lice.  Many people died from malnutrition and the epidemics that were rampant in the ghetto.

In the ghetto there were Jewish police, Kapos.  Sarah happened to know one of them.  During the time that they were in the ghetto, Sarah fell gravely ill.  People around her would tell her she needed to stay away from the children, or else they would contract the disease as well.  She did not.  She actually tried to get the children sick, because she wanted to make sure that they would all die together, and that she would not leave them.  At one of the lowest and darkest points, she went to her friend, one of the Kapos, and begged him for a shot of vodka.  She just wanted to escape what was now defining her life.  Her friend complied, and until she got better, each day he would bring her a shot of vodka.
Sarah did get better, and she knew she had to do something for her children.  One day, she found an opening in the barbed wire.  Leaving the children in the attic, she escaped that night through the small hole, and ran to a gentile friend of the family that she knew in Dembitz.  She got bread for them, and came back into the ghetto the same way she had left.  As they saying goes however, 3 times a charm.

On her return the 3rd time, she once again came back into the ghetto through the hole in the barbed wire.  However, this time as she quietly started to walk back to her dwelling, she felt two people following her.  Knowing that she could not go "home" for fear of putting her childrens lives' in danger, she began to wander around the streets.  She kept walking around and around, so afraid of who was behind her, but she knew not to turn around.  Finally, the two men stopped her.  They were German guards, "Where are you coming from?"

Hope you check back soon to hear how Sarah's encounter with these two guards ended up being a life saving experience.