Monday, February 21, 2011


"Courage is not the lack of fear, but the ability to face it"
Lt. John B. Putnam, Jr. (1921-1944)

In the winter of 1943, again Sarah needed to find shelter for her and her two small children.  Her friend Romek knew the Mordel family and arranged for Sarah to hid there.  The setting was all too familiar.  Mordel had dug a hole in the ground for Sarah and her children to lie in.  The only difference this year was that they were to "live" under a pig pen as opposed to the stables.

Most of the winter went by without incident.  When the winter was almost over, the pig that had been sheltered in the pen was slaughtered.  Mordel told Sarah and the children that on Sunday's, when everyone was at church, they could come out from the floorboards into the pig sty for a few hours.  On one Sunday, when they were in the sty, Manek looked out through the wired window and asked his mother, "Why can the chickens run free and play and we can not?"   Sarah answered from her heart "I have no answer for you, but to tell you that one day you will be able to run as free as the chickens."

On one of these Sunday's, Sarah saw Germans coming.  People were running away, into the woods and in all directions.  Sarah knew she could not be found hiding in a pig pen.  She instantly got up, stepped out of the pen, grabbed the children, and went right up to a German soldier.  She started yelling and screaming in Polish to them.  One of the soldiers understood Polish and asked her what she was doing here.  She answered, "We were in the next town over and told to leave.  So we came here.  This man gave us shelter, but he is cruel to us.  He does not feed us, look how pale my children are, and he beats us."

Meanwhile, Manek, who had also seen the Germans coming and seeing his mother talk to them, became terrified and let go of his mother's leg, and ran into Mordel's house and hid under a bed.  You see, Sarah had always warned Manek that if he were to be caught and captured, anyone would just need to pull down his pants and see that he was Jewish.  When the German's approached, he was so scared that they would do as his mother had warned and that he would give them all away.  As Manek ran away, the Germans questioned where he was going.   Sarah and the soldiers followed Manek into the house.  Sarah found him under the bed, and her quick thinking prevailed, "You see he is so scared of men because that one is always beating him."  She then came and took Manek out from under the bed, "Don't be frightened" she soothed, "Don't worry, these men are nice men, they won't beat you, yes they are men, but not like the other one."  The German soldiers replied, "No we won't hurt you." 

They all proceeded outside, and the Germans continued to question Sarah.  "Look the man has a cow, does he not give you milk?"  "No" she replied.  The Germans proceeded to go and start taking the cow.  Mordel, seeing the Germans taking his cow, begged them not to take it, it was his only one.  The Germans told him that it was his punishment for not even feeding these people.  Mordel begged, he said he had tried but it was so hard to feed so many.  The Germans took the cow. 

They returned a short time later with food for Sarah and her children and told her if she needed anything else, they were stationed nearby and she should come to them and they would provide her with food for her children. 

I often think about the courageous things that my grandmother did.  I honestly can say I do not think I would have the courage to even think to do half of what she did.  It amazes me every time I think about what she endured, what she did, and what she did not do.  She was not the only courageous one.  I think of all those Polish families that helped her and hid her, my father and my aunt.  I am a mother of two children, would I have the courage to risk their lives to help another?  I say to myself that I hope I would find that courage, but I am not sure.  Would you?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


"And in life, it is all about choices we make. And how the direction of our lives comes down to the choices we choose." Catherine Pulsifer, from HONESTY. . . A Core Value?

The spring of 1943 was approaching, and once again Sarah and the children had to head into the forest to hide.  Romek had known where they were hiding.  He had kept tabs on Sarah and the children, and as the weather started to get a little mild, he and Fish came to get Sarah and the children.  They met up with Ignash  in the forest.
The days were long.  To pass the time, the men would teach Manek how to handle a machine gun (they had stolen weapons), how to fire it, take it apart, put it back together and clean it.  If they were sure no one was anywhere around, they would allow the young boy to do target practice and shoot into the woods.  They felt he needed to learn how to protect himself and his family.  He took his "job" very seriously.  One day, Fish thought it would be funny to "scare" the young child.  He snuck out of camp, and then crept around the outskirts, so as to approach from behind Manek.  But Manek was a quick study.  He was a child that was quickly learning to rely on instinct.  He heard some rustling in the  woods behind him and quickly sprang from where he sat.  Fish had left his machine gun at camp, and Manek immediately grabbed it, pointed and aimed.  Sarah, seeing the activity, cried to Manek "What's wrong?".  "I hear something, someone is coming."  Sarah told him to put down the weapon immediately.  At that moment, Fish jumped out from the woods laughing.  Well that did not last long, Sarah gave him an earful about what an idiotic stunt he tried to pull, and he could have gotten himself killed.  As far as Manek was concerned, he was just happy he did not have to put his training to the test.
Occasionally the men would go on a "mission".  They would leave at night, go far away from where they were hiding, so as not to attract any suspicion or attention to their area.  They would go steal clothes, flour, potatoes and other items to help them survive.  This summer the accommodations were good.  Romek proved to be a very good provider (aka thief).  On one of these outings, Romek came back with jams, crackers, sugar and other "goodies".  He told the story that he had gone through a village and had come across a German supply truck.  When the truck stopped, two men emerged and went to the side of the road to relieve themselves.  Since he saw that there were only two men, he quickly killed them both, and then proceeded to take as many supplies as he could and bury them in the woods.  Every 1-2 weeks he would go to his "stash" and bring back more food.  They were "well fed". 
But not all the outings were as successful.  One night, at the beginning of spring, the three men had gone to look for food.  They again went far away, but this time they came across Polish police.  These police, armed with weapons, were trigger happy.  They began to shoot at the men.  The three men tried to run as fast as they could, but Ignash was hit.  He was injured very badly from the gunshot wounds.  Romek and Fish each took an arm, and tried to run with him to escape a similar fate.  They dragged him for a little bit and then realized that his injuries were too bad.  Romek did what he felt was the only choice he had, he aimed his own weapon at Ignash and killed him to put him out of his misery.  When they returned to camp, they only told Sarah that Ignash had been shot and that they lost him in the woods.  Years later, Fish could not live with the guilt of what they had done, and had confessed the truth to Sarah.
Days were long and nights were even longer.  How people deal with the circumstances they are dealt can vary from person to person.  Not everyone reacts the same, or has the same courage as others.  Who is to say who is right and who is wrong?  Would you have done what Romek did?  Could you have? Would you have risked your own life to save another one?  What if that other life was your child?  
During this summer, Sarah and the children encountered about 5 other Jewish people hiding in the woods.  Romek and Fish had found them.  Amongst them was another woman with two small children, about Manek and Zosia's ages.  A little bit later, Romek and Fish came across the group again, but this time there were only 3 of them.  They found out that the group had been found, and that they had to run away in order to avoid being killed.  The mother had left her two young children to die in the woods, while she ran away to save herself. 
After the war, Sarah ran into the woman.  The woman immediately started to make excuses for her actions. Sarah could barely even look at her straight in the eyes.    Sarah found out later that this woman moved to South America soon after the war, got very sick and died at an early age.  Sarah said to her children "You see, G-D does punish."

Sunday, February 13, 2011


"You gain strength, courage, and confidence by each experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” You must do the thing you think you cannot do. "
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) American Columnist, lecturer and humanitarian.

The Dziedzik family became known amongst the Jews as a "friendly" family.  They helped many Jews over those formidable years, including Sarah and the children.  They were the family that you would go to as an "in between" house.  You would stay a few days while looking for other shelter, but if you were in a bind, you knew you could come here for help.  Their reputation spread amongst the people, and of course the Germans caught wind.  This is how they came to the house looking for the Schonwetter's that day in the attic.  They knew that the Dziedzik family had been rumored to be Jewish helpers, and they were eager to catch them in the act.  Because of this, no one could hide at this home for very long.  After the incident in the attic, Sarah and the children knew they had to leave. 
Just prior to coming to the Dziedzik's, Sarah had hid at another family's house attic for just a little while.  They had left that hiding place because one night, a few days after they had arrived, someone had tried to steal some chicken's from the man's home.  He did not know who it was and got scared and told Sarah she had to leave.  Ironically enough, it had been Romek who had gone to steal the chickens that night, but of course there was no way of knowing at the time who it was, it could just have easily been someone who may have seen something.  When Sarah had to leave the Dziedzik family she went back to this house and begged him to take her and the children back.  He finally agreed, but refused to put them back in the attic.  He told Sarah to give him a few days and to return.  And so she did.
When she arrived back a few days later, he took her and the children to the stables.  He had dug a hole in the ground under the floor boards, and told Sarah and her children that this was their new hiding place.  And so they crawled in. The space allowed them only to lie on their backs, they could lift their heads up only slightly, just about enough to prop yourself up on an elbow.  He placed hay over the floor boards and left.  This man made tomb became their new home.  They could not leave this hiding place.  Sanitary conditions were nonexistent.  "Luckily" since they were in the stables, the smell was masked by all the other animals that also just did their business where ever they so chose.  At least the horses were lucky, they did not have to live and sleep in their own excrement.
Once a day the man would come and give them some bread and soup.  Other than that they were left on their own.  One day however, they heard some commotion.  Sarah could only peak out of a small hole in the boards above her.   You would think that living with fear as your constant companion would lessen the fright, but it did not.  German soldiers were entering the stable with their horses.  Sarah was frozen with fear.  The Germans needed a stable to hold their horses for a few days.  The next day they took their horses and went out for little bit.  The kind owner came to Sarah, peaked through the hole and told her to stay hidden, don't let the kids make a peep, there was not much else he could do, they should be gone in a few days.  Sure enough a few days later the Germans did leave, and Sarah and the children stayed hidden in the floorboards for the rest of the winter until the Spring of 1943.
I don't think anyone can truly understand what fear tastes like, unless they are in a life and death situation.  I often look at my children, and think how many times I beg them to be quiet.  How many times have we all been to a movie, restaurant, at a house of worship, or any of the countless other times that we have just asked, no begged our kids "Please quiet down" or "Be Quiet!", and how many times do they listen? and if they do, how long does it last?  Imagine having to make sure your children did not make even the slightest noise for days on end?  Could they do it?  Intrinsically Manek and Zosia must have known their life truly depended on it.  My grandmother used to say it was not easy, after all my father was a little boy.  I have girls, so maybe it is harder for me to relate, but I have plenty of nephews, and boy, do boys like to jump around a lot and cause a commotion.  I could not imagine them staying still for more than a couple of minutes, unless of course you have some good candy or a good show on TV!  But what if there was no TV? No reward for staying quiet?  Would they understand that the reward was the greatest gift of all? Life.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Attic

of the Baltic
"There was silence as deep as death; And the boldest held its breath, For a time"
Thomas Campbell, Battle of the Baltic
Winter was coming.  Sarah and the children could not stay exposed to the elements for the entire winter, so shelter had to be found.  As you can imagine, this was no easy task.  She first went back to the home that had been so kind the winter before.  But they refused.  She did get them, however, to agree to at least watch the children for a few hours each night so that she could go searching for another shelter.  Sarah had names of people that she would approach.  But she was smart enough to not go with just anyone.  If she went to a home and they accepted her too easily, with not much fear or resistance, she would say thank you, I will go get the children and return, but she would never come back.   She knew that would be the last shelter she would ever find.  Instead, she waited until she found a family that begged her to find another place, one that begged her to not put their family in danger, and then Sarah would beg even more.  She knew that a family that had that much fear would not turn her over to the Germans.  And so she found just the family.
The Dziedzic family lived in Brzostek and had been acquaintances of hers.  They gave her, Manek and Zosia, shelter in their attic, where Sarah and the children stayed and lived under the hay.  They would make a hole in the hay that was stored in the attic and live there for the whole winter. 
One day there was a knock on the door.  It was the Gestapo.  They had heard that the Schonwetter's were hiding out in this house.  Of course the whole Dziedzic family denied this allegation.  The Gestapo's answer was quite clear, "You know the consequences of lying, if you are lying you will be as dead as them." 
They then proceed to search the house.  They started by looking through all the rooms, every hole in the wall, the barn, and then they came to the attic.  Sarah had heard the commotion below and quickly took the children and burrowed themselves deep in the hay.  She covered each child's mouth with her hand, and then just waited.
She heard the German soldier climb up the ladder and enter the attic.  At first it sounded as if he  was just looking around, and then Sarah heard the noise.  He had grabbed a pitchfork and was jabbing it violently into the hay.  Sarah held the children closer and tightened her grip on their mouths.  One of the stabs just barely missed their bodies, it was so close they could feel the sharp, pointed ends of the tool that had turned into a deadly weapon.  But once again, luck would win out, and the German, satisfied that there was no living being in the hay, retreated back down the way he came.   
We visited Poland for the first time in the early 1990's.  It was my father's first time back to his home country that he had left over 50 years earlier.  We met Zosia Dziedzic, the daughter of the family that had hid Sarah and the children all those years ago.  Zosia recounted this story to my sister and I that day and took us to her family home.  My sister and I climbed up that same ladder and looked into the "shelter" that housed our family.  It was a humbling experience to not only put an image to the story I had heard so many times, but more importantly, to meet a member of the family that over the next two years would play such a key part in the survival of our father, grandmother and aunt.