Thursday, March 24, 2011


"Even though it may be scary, confession is the right thing to do."
Alexis Arnold
After the incident with Manek and the vodka, Sarah took her children and left the house of refugees.  She continued to walk down country roads with the children with no destination in mind.  There was no food, no shelter, just the monotony each day of getting up and wandering, and the fear that at any moment someone may figure it all out.  One day, in the Polish town of Jaworze, Sarah stopped some people walking by her and asked them if they had anything to eat.  They looked from her to the two shells of what was once children next to her.  They only had 1 hardboiled egg that they could spare.  She took it and thanked them, and thanked them, and thanked them.  She and the children sat down on the curb on the side of the road.  Sarah then took that one boiled egg, and split it into small pieces, gave each child a small piece, and saved the rest for "later".
It's funny how a memory stays with you forever.  When we were driving through Jaworze on our trip to Poland in 2009, my father and aunt actually stopped the car and pointed out the very spot they sat and ate that boiled egg.
As Sarah and the children indulged in their hearty meal, a woman, Bronca, walked by them.  She was by herself, and noticed the mother and her two young children.  She stopped and asked Sarah, "Who are you, and where are you from?"  Sarah replied "I am Francesca, and these are my two children Maryan and Sophia.  We are from Brzostek (they were far enough away that she felt safe to name her home town)."  Bronca looks at her and continues her questions, " Why are you alone with two children?  Where is your husband and family?"  Sarah continued to make up an elaborate tale and excuse.  Bronca, seeing the sorry state of the threesome tells Sarah "You know what, why don't you and the kids come to my house and I will give you something to eat."
And so they went with Bronca a short distance to her home.  She fed them Borscht and Potatoes.  It is hard to imagine but this was their first half decent meal in almost 2 years!  After the meal, Bronca asked Sarah where she was going to stay.  She answered "I'll be honest with you, I have nowhere to go."  Bronca looked from Sarah to her children and said "OK I understand, why don't I keep you here for a little bit."  Sarah was hesitant but she decided she would graciously accept the offer.
After a few days, Bronca came to Sarah and told her that people were beginning to talk about her and the children because they looked so different, they started to suspect that perhaps she was not who she said she was.  Sarah asked "Who was saying such things?  Let me see if it is who I think it is."  Bronca pointed out the woman that started the talk.  Sarah immediately responded "Aha, that is who I thought you would say.  You see I think SHE is a Jew and she is trying to put the suspicion off herself and onto anybody else.  I'll go tell her!"  Bronca assured Sarah not to worry that she would take care of it and told Sarah not to start anything.  Of course Sarah had no idea who the woman was that Bronca pointed out, she made the whole story up to cast the suspicion of herself.
Sarah had stayed a few days, and still had no idea where she would go.  Bronca was good to Sarah and the children and soon Sarah had to confide in her.  Sarah went to Bronca and confessed.  "I have to be honest with you.  I am Jewish and I don't know what to do anymore, or where to go."  Bronca responded "I suspected that just looking at you.  Ok, stay with us, but don't tell anyone what you have told me.  I will keep you as a refugee like all the others, and let's see how long I can keep you like that.  You must watch all that I do.  You must act like a Christian.  Tell your children that each morning they must get up and pray like everyone else.  Every Sunday we will all go to church.  All of you must watch and follow all that I do."  So life as a Catholic began for Sarah and the children.  They went to church every Sunday, took communion, and no one suspected a thing.
When you go to church, not only do you pray and take communion, but everyone is expected to go to confession.  So Sarah went to confession.  When she got there, she was at a loss.  Bronca was not near her so she had no one to mimic.  So she did what any good Catholic would do, she confessed.  She turned to the priest and told him "I am so sorry but I do not know what to do, I am not really a Catholic."  The priest immediately understood her meaning.  He had seen her and her children at church.  He put his hand on her head and said "You are a very brave woman, the war is getting closer to the end and being a hero woman you will survive and you will be fine and G-d will bless you."  When Sarah walked out of the church Bronca was standing with a few other towns people.  Bronca commented on Sarah's talk with the priest, "Francesca, you must not have had many sins because the priest was so nice and cheerful to you!"  This killed any and all suspicion that may have been left.
The encounter with the priest had a profound lasting effect on Sarah.  She would forever have a soft spot and a special feeling for the Catholic religion.  Even though over the years I have heard many of the stories that I have recounted during this story telling, there have been many more that I am learning about for the first time.  This story is one of the ones I had not heard before.  It brings a smile to my face that I can still learn something new about my grandmother.  I miss her so much each day. Writing this story has made me feel closer to her, and as I shed a tear writing this, I only wish I had the chance to ask her about all that I am learning.  The one thing that always struck me as odd though, was that after all that she went through, she still believed in G-d, kept Kosher and believed in religion.  I never really understood it until now. This priest truly understood the meaning of G-d and that there is only one G-d.  He gave her strength to go on and know that G-d was still with her and always would be.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


 “All the learning in the world, cannot replace instinct” – Robert Ley

Instinct is a funny thing.  Are people born with a certain amount of instinct, can you learn instinct, can instinct be taught?  Many studies are done about babies and young children.  Do they learn that crying brings them attention, or is it an innate behavior, one that does not need to be taught, but rather is instinctive? 
Children will be children the saying goes.  Young children want to play and laugh and sing.  But when young children are forced into situations beyond our imagination how will they react?  Manek, being a little older than a toddler, reacted in a way that was very grown up.  He took protecting his family very seriously.  Zosia, being only a small child, barely older than a baby, did not know any better.  She would want to play and laugh, but that behavior brought unwanted attention to her and those around her.  Early on in the war, the people around Sarah told her that Zosia’s behavior would be the death of them all.  They convinced her that the best thing for both her and her child would be to find a place for her to stay and to give her away.  Thinking that perhaps they were right, she asked Romek to find a “home” for her youngest child.  Zosia was taken away to her new “home” and was separated from her mother and brother for a few months.  During this time, unbeknown to Sarah, Zosia was treated horribly.  Once again, a mother’s intuition won out. Sarah just knew it was wrong to be separated from her child, and after a few months forced Romek to take her to the family where Zosia was hiding.  When she arrived, she was presented with a child.   The child was badly malnourished, had no hair and was unrecognizable.  She demanded to know where “her” child was, not realizing at first that she was looking at her own daughter.  Seeing what had become of Zosia, she vowed that she would never allow herself to be convinced against her own instincts again.  And Zosia “learned” that she had to behave a certain way in order to not face the same sort of ordeal again.
By the time the spring of 1944 came around, living in the forest had become second nature to the Schonwetter family.  This time when Sarah and the children were hiding in the forest, they started to see more and more German troops, and hear more artillery gun fire.  The front was getting closer.  Polish families were driven from their homes with the war approaching.  Every few days, those hiding in the forest would see groups of Polish families walking on the country road, carrying all their belongings, or at least all that they could carry.  Some groups would be as small as 10-15 people, some as large as hundreds of people. 
The partisan groups were also getting more active at this time.  During the war there were Polish partisan groups that fought against the Germans and the occupation.  At first there were two partisan groups, the Army Krajowa (otherwise known as the National Army) and the Army Ludowa (The People’s Army).  Army Ludowa eventually merged with the Army Krajowa.  This group was very helpful to the Allies throughout the war and even played a role in helping liberate the Warsaw Ghetto.  However, within this group of partisans were many Polish people that were anti-Semitic.  Hiding in the woods, you did not know if the partisan you would encounter was a friendly one or one of the anti-Semites, so it was best to stay hidden and not let your presence known.
By the late summer, early fall, Sarah, Romek and Fish came to the conclusion that they could not just sit in the forest any longer.  There were too many people coming and going and it was just not safe anymore.  They decided it was time for them all to split, go their own way and survive best they can.  Sarah was now on her own with her two small children.  She saw a group of Polish people, about 10-20 of them passing by.  A few minutes later another 7-10 people go by, and maybe 10 minutes later another few.  She makes a decision.  She takes the children and says lets go, and proceeds to go out on the county road and start walking like all the others.  She really did not know where she was heading, she just started to follow the path the rest of the Polish refugees were taking.  And so the life of Francesca, Maryan and Sophia began.
As Sarah walked on the road, she started to come in contact with other people.  They would ask her where she was from, her response was “Where are you from?”  She would listen to the names of the villages they gave her, and then tell them she was from another village a little further away.  She told them her name was Francesca and that these were her children, Maryan and Sophia.  Since many times she would give names of villages very far away, she would get comments like “Oh, so far away?  No wonder you look so terrible and malnourished.”  She would answer “Yes, they were fighting near my home and I had to leave.”
Sarah and the children walked for days.  They would sleep on the ground on the side of the road, if they ate at all it would be a raw potato if they could find one, or berries.  The children knew better than to cry or complain.  One day they came across a home that was housing many Polish refugees.  Refugees were sleeping in the stables and in the house, so Sarah approached and she asked if they could take her and her children in as well.  The woman that owned the house said she would but she did not have any space left.  Sarah begged and said she would even stay in the attic, the woman mentioned that the attic was empty, and nothing was up there, Sarah said that was OK with her.  And so they stayed for about 1 week, but what an eventful week it was. 
There were many different people staying in this home, and some began to get suspicious of “Francesca’s” story right away.  Sarah would overhear them going to the woman, asking “Are you sure she is not Jewish?  Look how dark her hair is, she has no husband, just her and the kids, something is fishy here”.  Sarah kept her ears and eyes open on everything. 
One night, Sarah sent the children up to bed.  A cousin of the woman that owned the house had been one of the most suspicious ones of them all.  When he saw that the children went up to bed alone, he quickly climbed the ladder into the attic.  Manek had just fallen asleep and was startled awake as the man tried to pull down his pants.  The young boy started screaming and the man backed off, and as Sarah ran to her son, the man left as quickly as he came.
To find out if you were a Jew, it was very simple if you were a man.  All that needed to be done was to see if you were circumcised.  This was the tell all sign.  This was how many Polish people tried to weed out the Jews.  This experience in the attic was not the only time that Manek was almost found out. 
Homemade vodka was a common place in Poland.  In the house next door, the men would make vodka for themselves.  They would brew it in big barrels, slowly cooking the potatoes over the fires, stirring it constantly so that as not to burn anything.  With the front approaching and the Germans coming closer, the men would get afraid that they would get caught.  So they enlisted the help of the young boy, “Maryan” to help them stir and make the vodka.  After a few days the vodka was ready, and after filtering it through a hat, they were ready to celebrate their success.  Evening had approached.  The 4 men insisted that Maryan join them in their celebration, after all he had done such a good job and had helped them brew the gallons of vodka they got.  One man gave Maryan a shot of vodka, raised his glass and said “Nastrovia” (cheers in Polish).  The boy had to do the shot, and so he did.  Well, the men now explained to the young boy, out of respect, since they toasted and drank to him, he had to toast and drink to them as well, and so a second shot was circulated and drank by all.  They young boy started to get tipsy, and so did the men.   They told the young boy, “Why don’t you sing for us?  Do you know any songs?”  Of course he knew songs, so he started to sing, and after each song, they would toast with another shot, and tell him to sing again.
Meanwhile, Sarah started to worry, it was evening and her son was nowhere to be found.  She started to ask around to see if anyone had seen him.  No one had.  As she walked outside looking for him, she headed toward the house where he had been spending his days.  As she approached, she starts to hear him singing.  She quickly looks inside the house through a window, and what she witnesses stops her heart.  There, standing on top of a table is her son, singing, and one of the men starts to approach him and undo his pants in an attempt to pull them off.  Sarah started knocking on the window and ran to the door and barged in.  She grabs her son and starts yelling, “YOU DIRTY OLD MEN, YOU ARE TRYING TO RAPE A BOY!”  The drunk men respond back, calling her a “Jew”.  She screams at them, “It is not enough that you are trying to rape a boy, but now you are insulting me on top of it.  I am going to go to the police and tell them and everyone what you were doing to a child!” And she took her son and walked out the door.
Sarah knew her time here was over, and early the next morning took her two children, left the house and never looked back.