I can’t remember the exact moment when I realized there was a lot more to my Bubbe’s story than a grandmother who baked amazing chocolate chip cookies and spent her winters in Florida. Her past wasn’t really discussed openly, and it wasn’t until after my bat mitzvah that I started to really understand what she had been through. A young girl at the time Hitler rose to power, Esther Sal spent her teen years in a ghetto before escaping and hiding with her family in the forest, among other places. They narrowly missed death numerous times.
Now, as a mother to an 8-year-old, I struggle with how to share my Bubbe’s story before it’s too late. With my grandfather — a concentration camp survivor — having passed a few years ago, my son deserved to hear my Bubbe’s story straight from her. But could he handle it? While he’s learned a little bit about the Holocaust in school, he has been shielded from many of the more intense details. I wasn’t sure how he would react to hearing about some of them, especially from his great-grandmother.
We traveled down to Florida a few months ago so I could record her story for posterity. We talked about what Bubbe might share, and he said he wanted to be there to listen. And so, together, two days after we arrived in Boynton Beach, we gathered in the lanai and listened to her story.
Esther was born in Złoty Potok, Poland in 1929. The second oldest of five children, she lived with her family in a nice neighborhood, and due to her father’s successful store, they were comfortably middle-class. Like all of their Jewish neighbors, they were religious. There was nothing else but being Jewish, so there was no identifying by sect, really. And in the end, being Jewish was all that mattered.
“My life before the war was wonderful. I went to public school, and to a good Hebrew school. I could read and write in Hebrew. It was a private school, which was expensive and something not everyone could afford. When the war started I was 12 years old. They announced that no Jewish children could go to school. It was upsetting. Why could everyone else go to school but not us?”
When the Germans took over my Bubbe’s village, they also took away her father’s store and everything that was in it. The Germans created a group of Jews called the Judenrat, and forced them to go and collect valuables from their neighbors. They took everything from furs to jewelry, even wedding rings.
“We still lived in our house though. We had a very nice house that my father built two years before the war. It was brick, a beautiful home. I shared a bedroom with my sister upstairs. Then, it started getting really bad, and we were scared. The Germans chased us out of our home to the city of Buchach. All the Jews had to leave. They let us take a suitcase and that was it. You couldn’t take your furniture. When they chased us out of our house, our grandfather came with us. He was 72 years old.
“They used to surprise us during the night with trucks — the SS. You didn’t know they were coming. My father was always looking for hiding spaces for us. So on the third floor, where the attic was, he divided a wall and the door was hidden so you couldn’t tell. When we heard the shooting outside, we went up and hid. We were 13 people between my family, some friends, and the couple that took us in. The Germans would go from house to house. Whoever they found, they took them out and threw them in trucks and took them to a forest. They made the Jews dig their own graves and then they shot them. Hundreds and hundreds of people were killed there.”
My Bubbe shares this as if talking about the plot of a book, but there is a weariness to her as well. Pulling up these memories can’t be easy. I look to my son, who has been quiet this whole time. I wonder if it’s too much for him, but he seems okay, absorbing it all.
“Once, the Germans came to the attic. They were looking for us, yelling “Jude! Jude!” We were very scared, but they finally left. While we hid in the attic, we heard all the shots that came from the forest, Feder Hill, all day and all night. They killed a lot of Jews that time. After two days of shooting, things quieted down. We started coming out of our hiding place. Downstairs there were some other people that lived there. The SS took the parents; the grandmother and a little boy, only 2 years old, were shot. The little boy wore a white coat and the blood ran all over the coat and the boy. I will never forget that. And when we came out, on the street, there were a lot of dead people, their brains splashed all over. I was only 12 years old.”
Twelve. Four years older than my son. I can’t imagine. I don’t want to imagine. But the picture she’s painting is so vivid and so painful. My Bubbe explains how her family was then forced into a ghetto, surrounded by wire. They weren’t allowed to leave and the conditions were horrible. Once again, her father went into the attic of the house they were in and made a hiding space. The Germans continued to “surprise” them, and they managed to survive every shooting that happened. Her father realized that staying in the ghetto didn’t necessarily mean survival. He felt that if they “were going to die anyway” they should at least try to escape. In the middle of the night he packed up the whole family and they walked 18 miles back to their village of Złoty Potok where they were able to stay in the barn of a woman they knew. It was then that most of the family fell ill with typhoid fever.
“My brother, he was two years older than me, didn’t get sick. So my father put him in another place, with a non-Jewish family, very good people. They took my brother in and kept him, not long. Maybe a week or two. And my grandfather, he was in a barn somewhere else. Somebody saw, and squealed on my brother, telling the Germans and they came in and took him out. My brother was 17 years old. They also found my grandfather. They took them to the Jewish cemetery, made them undress, and then they shot them both. My father knew about this, but didn’t tell us. He told us they took them to a camp.”
She explains that they all eventually survived the typhoid. Her father realized that they couldn’t stay in the woman’s barn for too much longer. My Bubbe emphasizes how brave this woman was, because if the Germans had caught them there, she would have been killed as well. A glimpse of all the kind hearted people within all of this madness.
“When we finally felt better we went into the forest, and again, my father protected us. He built a bunker very deep in the forest. We cooked outside. We stayed there for a while until it was too dangerous. So we went elsewhere in the forest and started again. My father built another bunker, under the ground. Then another one, and a third one underneath that one.
“I remember, there was a woman there with her husband and she was pregnant. And that wasn’t a good thing. She had the baby and… he didn’t survive. The baby was screaming, and there were other people in the bunker and they didn’t want that. Don’t ask, it was a whole different kind of thing.”
At this, my son’s eyes grow wide with understanding but he remains silent, wanting my Bubbe to go on. He has fallen into her story and, like me, needs to hear it through until the end.
“Well, the soldiers came and we ran into the bunker. My father made a cover from a tree stump, with moss around it. You couldn’t tell it was a cover and that there was anything underneath. Somehow, they found the bunker. They opened the cover and started shooting. They were afraid to go in. They threw in a hand grenade. But we went into the third one, down below and we were safe.”
I start to imagine what the two years in the woods must have been like for her. She explains how they foraged for food like mushrooms in the summer, and in the winter they got whatever food they could from a Polish doctor who was a friend of theirs. She describes the one dress she wore the entire time in the forest. More than 60 years later she can still describe it with such clarity: dark orange, almost red, with pinstripes. I wonder what happened to that dress.
“There were always surprises. Once, we didn’t have time to hide in the bunker. We ran and ran and ran, down to the stream where we washed up. We could see the German’s boots and rifles. Until today, I still have nightmares that I’m running and running, but they didn’t get me. My heart, racing. We had so many close calls, but they never got us.
“Winter was really bad. We were starving and had no food. My mother decided that we had to get out of the forest. She had a brother and a sister, and they were staying with a Baptist couple, who had kept 12 Jews underneath their barn in a bunker. My mother said, ‘We’re going to die either way, so we might as well try. Maybe they’ll take us in.’”
She tells me that they did take them in, despite the fact that there were already too many people hiding in their bunker. They were allowed to stay there for four weeks.
“We had to stay in the dark bunker with no windows. You couldn’t see anything and I did not like that. Until today, I still hate the dark.
“We walked through the night back to our hometown Złoty Potok and we went into a neighbor’s barn. We were frozen and hungry. She had two cows in there, we sat around them and it was nice and warm. There was food left for the cows, so we ate it. Then we figured our neighbor would come in during the morning, see us, and then run to the police and that would be the end.
“When she did come in, she knew us. She used to come to our house on Shabbat. She felt sorry for us. She started crying. She kept us there. She used to bring food for the cows and for us. She had a very sick husband — he was very mean. If he had known we were there, forget it, we would have been gone. But he was paralyzed, so he had no idea we were in the barn. Everyone thought she was a crazy woman. Well, she wasn’t so crazy.
“My father made a room from the straw and manure in the barn, so if anyone came in to look for us, we would hide. And we stayed there for three, maybe 4 more months until we were liberated by the Russians.”
It’s been almost an hour. My son — who is the definition of “shpilkes in the tukhis” — has sat, engrossed this entire time. I know we’ll have many follow up conversations about much of what he has heard, but I am so grateful for this moment. For him to hear my Bubbe’s story from her lips. Perhaps he will one day share this story, when all we have left are recordings and written words. He’ll be able to say, my great-grandmother was a part of this awful and historic event. This is her story.
Avital Norman Nathman is a former teacher turned freelance writer.