“Mommy, where am I
going?” I ask, looking up into her tear streaked face. We are at the Warsaw
train station, and she is giving my four-year-old hand to a strange man.
Smiling through her tears, she says, “You’re just going into the country to play for a day. This nice man is going to take you there.”
Trustingly, I walk onto the train with him. It is May 1940, and that is the last time I see my mother.
Suddenly, I know it is important for me to be quiet. I sit on the edge of my seat, staring out the window quietly, even though it’s my first train ride. I want to show the man all the cows I see, but I know I’m supposed to be invisible.
After two hours on the clickety-clackity train, we come to a convent in the mountains. “This,” the man says, “will be your new home. Do not say you are Jewish. Do not. They will tell you how to go to church.”
Coming out, I hear the nuns talking. “Thank God this one’s a girl,” an old one says.
“Yes,” agrees another, “boys are too obvious because they’re circumcised. Mother Superior is not taking any more boys.”
I don’t understand this, but I know they’re talking about me.
I am led to my bunk in a room with eleven other girls. There are forty children in the orphanage the nuns manage, and I’ve heard rumors that eight of us are Jewish.
They make us go to church every day. I stand there, pretending to understand what is said, mumbling gibberish when everyone else speaks. There are orphans here who don’t know Latin either, so no one notices. I think. I’m not sure why it’s so dangerous for me to be here, but I somehow know I must fit in.
There isn’t much food here, because orphans don’t get many rations, and we Jews don’t get any at all. The nuns are nice about it though, and we all eat the same. I’m always hungry.
About a year later, Anelia runs away. She says she’ll tell the Germans about the eight of us if the nuns try to find her. Sister Andrea takes me into an empty bedroom and tells me that a woman from the country is coming to take me away to her house. It’s too dangerous for me to stay with them. My new name is going to be Beata, and I am an orphaned cousin of Mrs. Kurowski from Hamburg.
Mrs. Kurowski comes to the orphanage and gets me. “Now listen,” she barks, “you must not give yourself away. If you dare slip and say you’re Jewish, we’ll both die.” Sister Elizabeth (do I know another Elizabeth?) mutters, “Why did we agree to pay her for this? She’ll probably not feed the child.”
Mrs. Kurowski takes me to her village. Life here is different from the convent. All the peasants want to get a reward for tipping off the Nazis about hiding Jews, so they’re nosy. Mrs. Kurowski makes me memorize the whole Mass so no one will suspect I’m Jewish. Sometimes, if I don’t get it right, she beats me. I cry a lot. I don’t remember my mother, except I remember what her hug feels like. I want that hug from the faceless shadow.
Since it’s too dangerous for me to go to school, Mrs. Kurowski says I’m retarded. I’m supposed to play with the other children, but they tease me. It’s so hard. There is a Sarah, and if I turn my head when they call her, the people will turn me in. I’m always on guard.
About three months later, I have to go to confession for Easter. I don’t know how, but I know Mrs. Kurowski told me and will beat me if I ask again. So I tell Sarah, “You tell me how to go to confession in Poland and I’ll tell how to do it in Germany.” She explains it in great detail, and I finally understand what to do. When it’s my turn, I say, “It’s the same, except you speak German.”
One day, the nice man who took me to the convent shows up. I think he’s friends with my real mommy. “How do you like it here?” he says. I say, “She hurts me with a belt. Please take me back to the convent!” “I’ll see what I can do,” he says, but it’s a month before I hear from him again.
Then, he shows up at 4:30 one morning and says, “The train to your new home leaves in twenty minutes. Prepare. By the way, your name is now Marie.” Mrs. Kurowski is angry, I think, at not getting more money from me. I am older now and understand what the nun said, but I still don’t understand why I’m hiding.
He takes me to a farm in France. This woman, Mrs. Lafayette, is hiding me for free, so the man thinks it will be better. It is. The Lafayettes have three children, and no other houses are near their large farm, so I can be a little less cautious. Gisele is five, like me, and we like to play hide-and-seek in the house.
The Lafeyettes are very Catholic, and they talk to me about the saints and Jesus. I decide church in France isn’t scary like church in Poland, and I think I like it. When May 1943 comes I make my First Communion with Gisele in the little village chapel. I like it. I know I’m really Jewish, but I don’t remember anything about it, except that I am it, and the soldiers don’t like Jews.
One hot day in July, I’m playing with Gisele in the barn when five German soldiers come to the door. “Open! It’s the SS!” they yell. Someone has told on us. Mrs. Lafayette whispers fiercely to me. “You know this house. Go into your best hide-and-seek place and stay there!” The Lafeyettes didn’t trust anyone to build a secret compartment. I run to my favorite place, the compartment under the grandfather clock. It’s actually roomier than it looks. It took Gisele ten minutes to find me the first time I hid there.
I hear the big black boots thumping around the house. The clock is in the main hall to the bedrooms, they can’t miss it. I hear the sounds grow louder as they approach the clock. I try to stop breathing. I remember Mrs. Kurowski telling me that the hiders will be shot along with me if I’m found.
They crack the glass of the clock, and sharp pieces hit the top of my hiding place. My scalp is cut, but I do not cry out. Thankfully, they walk past me. “Thank you, Jesus,” I think.
But they will come back, and I must move on. There is no time for me to pretend to be a family member. Mr. Lafayette knows a man who hides Jews in a compartment in his barn. He takes me there that night in his wagon under a load of straw. We meet no one, and I arrive safely. This is my third hiding place in four years.
I am not told the man’s name. I do not need to know it, so I don’t. He’s a middle-aged, pudgy, balding man, and he takes me to his hiding place. It is a dug out crawl space on the barn floor. There is a mother with a ten-year old boy there already. I crawl in and lie there. It is three feet high, with a chamber pot in one corner of the room. No one can change it, so we huddle away from its stench and lie near the door. The man cannot always get us food. We have no ration cards, and must use one man’s rations for four.
It’s horrible just lying there for days. The mother has one book she reads us, but I now know the whole story from hearing it so much. I sometimes talk to my imaginary friend, Nikole, but she is no real help. We cannot laugh or even talk above a whisper. I have not seen sunlight these eight months I’ve been here. I no longer remember my mother’s touch from when I was four. When the war is over, how will she find me in France? I am German, and she’s probably still in Poland or back in Germany. I haven’t seen the man who took me to the convent in years. He won’t even know where I am. And if we happen to meet, will I recognize her? I worry about these things constantly.
There’s lots of lice in our hiding place. They’re in my hair and on my clothes. My greatest pleasure here is cracking them with my fingernails. The man only comes to the barn every few days. On one trip, he says, “I’ve noticed you have lice. I have my shaving razor here, and am going to buzz off your hair to stop them.” I am happy to hear this. No more head lice! The man looks at Frank’s (that’s the boy’s name) and my clothes, which we have long since grown out of, and says, “I know you need new clothes but I can’t just buy children’s things. Sorry.”
We live like this for a year and a half without incident. I don’t think my mother thought I’d be like this when she sent me to the convent, but I can’t be sure. I don’t remember anything about my former life.
Then one day, we hear a commotion outside the barn. “No! Don’t arrest me!” the man shouts, and we know he is yelling to alert us he is gone. The Nazis have arrested him, we don’t know for what. They don’t come into the barn, so the woman says he must be suspected of something besides hiding Jews.
There are a few loaves of bread and some cabbage in the crawlspace. This is our only food until the war ends, and who knows when that will be? It is February 1945, and I have not heard war news since 1943. We live on the food for a week, stretching it out for as long as we can. When it is out, we must leave, but we cannot simply appear in the world. Nowhere is safe for us.
I open the crawlspace door, and immediately, a blinding light shines in. “Take it away!” Frank cries, for we have not seen sunlight in a year. The man always came at night. I quickly close it. In six hours, we are ready to come out, hoping it is night.
We sneak to the house and tiptoe into the kitchen to get some food, praying they didn’t take all the food. Suddenly, Frank halts. “There’s snoring in the next room,” he mouths. We try to get to the door, but a voice yells suddenly, “Halt!”
We tremble in fear. After everything we’ve been through, are we to die after all? Then, a young man in wrinkled clothes, not a uniform, says, “You came out. Good. I’m Pierre, and I’m in the Resistance. We didn’t know where you were, so I camped out here after Louis was arrested. I’ve come to take you to homes.”
Pierre, who is from Paris and is 27, takes me to the Lemieux household. They are a couple in their 50s who have no children. My name is now Chloe, their grandniece. They’re very nice to me and spoil me. I don’t think they know I’m Jewish, but as long s they’re hiding me, it doesn’t matter.
One afternoon in late April, the door knocks. It is our neighbor, and he bursts in the door, yelling, “We are liberated! We are liberated! The Americans are marching through the village now! Come quickly!” The three of us walk the half mile to the village, but I am so excited I run ahead. Hundreds of men in green uniforms riding on tanks parade through the town. They throw chocolate at us. I grab a piece and let the warm taste delight my tongue. I’ve never tasted chocolate, for when I was born in 1936, there was none for the Jews. They also throw chewing gum to us, something no one has ever tasted. I don’t get why there’s food you can’t swallow.
But once the excitement wears off, I realize that my family may never find me here. They might have died in the gas camps everyone speaks of. The Lemieuxs tell me not to worry; they will keep me as their daughter if no one comes. I don’t want that. I want my real family. I know that I must stay in one place, however, so that they can trace me.
One Friday in June, the door knocks. I run to answer it. A bald woman with a limp stares at me. “Hello?” I say, a bit scared. “What do you want?”
“Sarah?” she says, her face suddenly bright. “Is it you?”
“Are you my mother?” I ask, hoping for and dreading a “Yes” at the same time. This ugly old woman can’t be my perfect mother.
“No,” she rasps, “I am your sister, Elizabeth.” Then she begins to cry. “I’m so glad I found you,” she chokes. “I can’t bear more loss.” Then she embraces me. It’s funny. I didn’t remember ever having a sister, but now that she hugs me, I know. I have a brother, two sisters, a mother, and a father.
Just then, Mrs. Lemieux struts in. “What are you doing to our child, filthy woman?” she screams.
“I am her sister,” Elizabeth says calmly. “I’ve come to take her home.”
“NO!!!! She is our child. We want to keep her!” Mr. Lemieux walks in, and nods in agreement.
Elizabeth stares at them. “Well, I’ll let you keep her until Monday. It’s nearly sundown, and I must prepare the Sabbath candles with my father in the village,” she says, and walks out.
“Wait,” Mr. Lemieux says. “She’s Jewish? You’re Jewish?”
“Of course,” my sister says. Why else would I have been in Dachau?”
“Well, that changes everything,” Mrs. Lemieux says. Then to me, “You deceiver! You always prayed so nicely!”
I give her a toothy smile. Even though I liked the Lemieuxs, I liked my family more. Then, my newfound sister and I depart.
Elizabeth tells me that Peter and Mommy died. I’m saddened to know I will never see my mother again. She also explains that I was sent into hiding because it was easy to hide small children, and it could not be arranged to get the whole family into hiding.
This site explains the experience of Hidden Children and also provides facts about those in physical hiding, like when Sarah was in the crawlspace.
This site explains the differences between the day-to-day lives of Hidden Children in different situations.
Greenfeld, Howard. The Hidden Children. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1993.
All images courtesy http://www.ushmm.org