Nina Morecki: A Holocaust Survivor's Story, Part One
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A note from Craig von Buseck:
Before my recent trip to the Holy Land I had never met a Holocaust survivor. I had seen 'The Hiding Place' and 'Schindler's List', and I knew about the historical significance of this dark period in human history. But when I traveled to Israel I met not just one, but four survivors of what Hitler called the "final solution." Two of them were a couple from California, Sol and Rita. One night in Jerusalem, Sol and I sat in the courtyard of our hotel as he told me how he was separated from his family during the war, and how he had to abandon them to avoid being killed by the Gestapo in Poland. He survived by hopping on a train and riding it all the way to Uzbekistan. He waited out the war living in a tent in central Asia. He met and married his wife after he returned to Poland. None of his other family members were still alive.
I met another survivor named Lilly briefly during lunch outside a military base in central Israel. Lilly's niece Sandy was part of our tour, and she invited her aunt, an Israeli citizen, to join us for lunch. I learned that Lilly had miraculously survived the Auschwitz death factory. She still bears the Nazi-inflicted identification tatoo on her forearm. Today she lives peacefully in the country that was formed partly as a result of the Jewish suffering in the Holocaust.
The fourth person who I was privileged to meet was a tiny, soft spoken lady from Poland named Nina Morecki. On the second day of our journey, after I had introduced myself to the entire group as a journalist covering the trip for CBN.com, Nina approached me to introduce herself. "I wonder if I could share my story with you?" she inquired politely. "Your readers might be interested in some of the things that have happened in my life." I had just learned that Nina was a Holocaust survivor, and I was eager to talk to her. Over the next five days Nina shared the remarkable story of how she survived Hitler's gauntlet of death and destruction. She went from an innocent girl in a wealthy family, with dreams of entering the medical profession, to a secret agent for the Polish Underground, gathering information for spies. In the course of her harrowing journey she lost her entire family and survived hunger, disease, and a Nazi firing squad.
This is an open letter written by Nina, who is now in her eighties. Today she lives in California and speaks to thousands of students throughout the country telling her story. This letter was written with the hope that you and your children, and your children's children "will know what happened and never allow it to happen again."
Dear Young People of the World
The setting for my story is the city Lvov, Poland, in Eastern Europe during World War II. The German regime under Adolph Hitler's rule was a world power determined to expand its boundaries at any cost. Its leaders had another plan in mind: the extermination of the Jewish people, whom they believed to be an inferior and undesirable race that polluted the superior white Aryan nation they believed themselves to be. Unbelievably, many citizens when along with the program. Of those who didn't participate, the majority seemed to close their eyes to what was going on, as did much of the world. But a small, brave number risked their own lives to save the lives of those who survived, including mine. Many of these heroes paid with their lives.
Six million Jewish people and five million others (including those who opposed the Nazis and, of course, those who helped Jews) were systematically removed from European societies and murdered over the course of the war -- all with virtually no response from the rest of the world. That's 11 million people like the people in your lives: someone's mother, father, sister, brother, grandparent, friend, teacher, coach, doctor. In my case, every single person related to me was murdered.
This story I am about to tell is true. It will be difficult to read sometimes, but I feel it is important to share it with you as you start out on your life's journey. Like you, I really had no idea what the future would bring, and like you I had hopes and expectations of a great life. In my wildest dreams I would never have imagined the course it took. In memory of the innocent victims of the Holocaust, this is my story.
Something in the Air
It was the year 1939, the month of September, the Jewish High Holiday season. As a young girl of 18 who had lived in Poland all of my life, I began to sense that a great change was upon all of us, a change for the worse.
We were a happy privileged family who had made an extremely nice life with extended family and friends. We were well-accepted by people outside the Jewish community. My mother and father were successful business people who had inherited a soap and candle business and had developed successful investments and properties. They had married young and had three daughters. Lina, the eldest married a highly respected doctor, and they had a child, four-year-old Alma, whom I loved very much. Helen, my other sister, had married a successful lawyer.
I had just finished high school and my dream was to go to medical school. But I painfully learned there was no way that I, Nina Gritz, would be accepted to a university in Poland -- Jews were denied entrance to universities, especially to medical schools. My parents had been affected by the anti-Semitism that was ever-present throughout Poland, but I had only caught glimpses of it here and there. Learning that summer that my chances were better applying to schools outside the country, I optimistically sent off applications and received some letters of acceptance. But my dreams and hopes were about to be destroyed by the war.
The Good Life is Over
I remember it was a Friday morning. My friends and I were calling back and forth on the telephone planning a picnic. My mother and out housekeeper Hania had gone out shopping for our traditional Friday evening meal. My father was at the factory. Suddenly there was a terrible explosion! The impact shook the room violently, and I dropped the phone. Then one after another the bombs started falling and exploding all around me. Like a little child, I screamed for my mother, hysterically, desperately wishing to see her, wanting her to hold me and make me feel safe again. Up until that moment, my life had been sheltered and protected. Now I had never felt so alone. It was a very long hour before my mother finally returned. We hurried to the safest place we could think of: the cellar of our apartment building. No time to grab anything, not even food.
We were bombed day and night for three terrifying weeks, but it seemed like a lifetime. When those long weeks came to an end, Poland had been defeated and divided between Germany and the Soviet Union. Hitler and Stalin had made a peace pact, and the part of Poland where I lived fell to the Russians.
We tried to put our lives back into a certain order, but that proved difficult. I wasn't the same carefree girl with big dreams. I grew up overnight. I remember saying to my mother, "Mama, the good life is over."
During the next one-and-and-a-half years, we lived under the Soviet invaders' rule. A Russian major took over our spacious apartment, and my mother, father, and I were forced to live in one room. Wisely, my mother treated him kindly, almost like a houseguest. By that time our financial situation was quite bad because the Russians had confiscated nearly all of our money and possessions. Private businesses were forbidden and closed down. Everyone had to work for the Russians or be sent to Siberia.
I found a job as a Catholic hospital run by nuns. When it looked as though the Russians would be taking over the hospital, I studied Russian and statistics, determined not to let my lack of language hold me back. Taking classes at night in statistics quickly led to a more secure job working for the Russian government in occupied Poland. I was almost fully supporting my family on the little bit I earned.
During this time my dear father was arrested during the night. We were all devastated. He was imprisoned by the Russians, not as a Jew, but as an oppressive capitalist businessman -- something the Communists did not tolerate. The major who lived in our house was a good person and helped get little food packages to my father, until we lost all contact with him. We were hearing stories of more and more wealthy people who had been arrested or just disappeared. As bad as it was, thought, we somehow found a way to make things manageable -- believing things had to get back to normal soon. We never imagined life would get even worse.
He Who Helps a Jew
It was July of 1941, about four o'clock in the morning when the bombs started to fall again. I was shaken out of a dream and into a living nightmare by the horrifying sound of the explosions. I remember thinking, "What have we done to deserve this?" I soon learned the Germans were completely destroying Poland. The peace pact had been broken and the Russian armies had run away in a panic. Chaos enveloped the city. Many Poles, Ukrainians, and other citizens of Poland welcomed the Germans with open arms because they believed their situation would improve when the Russian Communists left. But the Jews were very afraid for their future.
When the bombing cease, the Gestapo rolled into Lvov. We were ordered by the Germans to clean up the mess they had made with their inhumane bombing. Thousands of bodies were scattered throughout the city, mixed in with the rubble from the buildings. Anti-Jewish propaganda was everywhere. Big posters were hung on the sides of buildings with the words "He who helps a Jew is worse than a Jew and will be killed on the spot." I knew that some Poles were collaborating with the Gestapo in identifying Jews and their homes and businesses.
The armed Gestapo roamed the streets, not afraid to shoot anyone. I became very frightened. The Gestapo ordered all Jews to turn in their valuables. I followed orders, regretting it later, by turning in a satchel of expensive jewelry, gold, and other valuables. We had been saving our hidden stash in the hopes that it would prove helpful if we found ourselves in a desperate situation in the future.
As time went by, the distinction between the Jews and the rest of the citizens became more obvious. We were singled out and abused. Jews were punished and even killed for any minor reason, without repercussions. I remember one instance when the Germans were beating an old Jew. I yelled, "Stop it." I was only wanting to help, but they replied threateningly, "Who are you to tell us?" For a long time my conscience nagged at me because I was not able to help this poor soul in any way. The Old Testament teaching, "Don't stay idle while your neighbor bleeds" echoed in my head. But I was powerless against this evil regime. This was when I first realized that it might come down to everyone for himself. The Germans were destroying our unity and our precious principle of treating each other with kindness and love. I prayed for peaceful and more tolerant times.
As I walked down the street one morning, trying to look inconspicuous, I came upon a spot that had once been a Jewish temple. From the time I was a young girl, I had come to know this place of worship. It had been completely destroyed. Sticking out of the ashes in various places were charred pieces of the sacred place and corpses of people who had been praying when the Germans set it aflame. I could not help but think that God had taken sides with the Gestapo. At that moment, I felt very alone, very helpless, but most of all, terrified of the future. Somehow I made my way back to the house; I could not call it home.
As days became weeks, and life passed by me as if it were a horrible dream, the persecution against my people became increasingly worse. Jews had to wear an arm band that was six inches wide with an embroidered blue Star of David. I had seen the vicious cruelty Jews had received for not following orders. Their bodies had joined the masses in the filthy ditches that teemed with death.
Sometimes I would wear the arm band and sometimes I would not. Either way, I was constantly terrified and witnessed many horrible scenes. The Gestapo had large, hungry dogs that they would set loose on Jewish children. There was no room for a mistake, for even the tiniest error meant a death sentence. Nonetheless, I was always taking chances.
I Didn't Care if I Lived or Died
The Germans established a "Judenrat," which was a Jewish city council set up to put all Jews to work doing the most horrible tasks. Jewish policemen were ordered to round up large numbers of Jews for "work crew," thereby pitting Jew against Jew. But when it became apparent that these poor people would never be seen again, the Jewish police refused to continue. One terrible day the Jews in our city were herded together to watch 12 of these policemen hung in front of our eyes as a lesson. It didn't work: As a group we would not cooperate in this inhuman deed, even if it meant losing our lives. The Judenrat fell apart.
As things got worse, I became numb to the world around me and wanted to rebel. I learned very quickly that rebellion would get me nowhere but into a shallow grave. One day as I walked in a line to go to a work site, I asked a German soldier, "Where are we going?" He smacked me across the face with a fierce blow. Again and again numerous fists and objects struck me. I was beaten until I could not move from the spot on which I lay. My head pounded, and my heart wept.
It was not long after my beating that the Jews were all moved into a ghetto. By keeping us in one central place, the Gestapo could segregate us from the non-Jews and make their selection for the concentration camps/ The old, sick, and very young were disposable, the first to be taken away because they were physically unable to do hard labor. The children especially were a nuisance. Who needed Jewish children?
No one can ever really prepare for death. And no one knows when her or his time or the time of a loved one will come. I certainly wasn't prepared for what was to follow: My mother, at the young age of 52, was murdered. The day was rainy, but my mother went as usual to the cemetery to pray. Coming back from work I noted the Gestapo herding some women and children under a bridge near the cemetery. I took side streets home. I bolted the door and asked where mother was. When my sister told me she was at the cemetery, I ran out without even closing the door. I raced to where I had seen the women and children, screaming for my mother the whole way. There were now thousands and thousands of Jews there, mainly elderly ones who were being beaten and collected in a cellar. I was sure I heard my mother screaming and desperately tried to get into the cellar too, but the soldiers wouldn't let me. One screamed at me to run, but I refused. He shook me and ordered me to run and I finally did, but I could still hear her voice as I ran home. Words cannot describe the grief I felt.
Thank God I wasn't there to witness the horror of her actual death, for I probably would have taken my own life as well. To die would have been a privilege then. Sadly enough, hell seemed preferable to where I was at the time. My own death no longer frightened me. I actually looked forward to the day that God would call for me.
After the Nazis killed my mother, I was completely unable to function. I spent countless hours staring at a featureless wall, repeatedly asking myself, asking God, "Why? Why me? What did I do that I was so terrible to deserve this?" I just wanted to be with my mother, wherever that might be. I had the small comfort of living with my older sister and her husband, and little Alma, probably because the Nazis still needed my brother-in-law's medical skills. I was one of the few who lived with family, a situation that was a rarity among Jews. Because I was traumatized by such disturbing emotional pain and agony, my brother-in-law treated my condition with strong medications. The pain never ceased -- even today it exists -- and never did the medicine completely eliminate my pain and fears. However, it did calm me down enough to go on.
Conditions worsened by the minute. One by one, innocent victims vanished without any notice, day or night. They would go out and just never return. They were probably killed, but no on knew anything. If they did, they weren't informing me. At this time, Hitler's Nazis were given quotas to fill. They would sweep through the city with special commandos and vicious attack dogs, searching out hidden Jews; with grossly inhuman tactics and murderous methods, they were rounding up Jews. My brother-in-law heard about an upcoming sweep planned by the Nazis, so he sent my sister and niece away from the city, hoping they were going to safety. That was not to be. I was distraught, for I didn't know where Lina and Alma were, and to make matters worse, my other sister disappeared. So I was completely alone. I had no reason to believe anyone in my family was alive. Why was I alive?
Sealed in a veritable crypt of solitude and hopelessness, I sat in a cold, dank room and wept my last tears until I was too weak even to cry. My eyes felt dry as the desert. They were the last tears I was able to cry for years to come. My pain, both emotional and physical, was numbed by the shock of what anyone could have easily mistaken for a terrible nightmare, but there was no waking escape from this reality.
I was the fly caught in the spider's web, with nowhere to turn and no one to turn to. I would much rather have had the spider quickly devour me than to have left me in suspense, trapped and tormented. I had neither desire nor determination to live. In desperation, many Jews committed suicide, only because they had the means to do it. I often longed to follow in their footsteps.
The Final Solution
In 1942, the Gestapo ordered the relocation of the Jews, evacuating them into a poverty-stricken section of the Polish community. Along with thousands of other Jews, I was forced to live in the new quarters. The living arrangements were unbearable. People were packed into empty shacks without enough water and food, or even basic furnishings and sanitation. We were allowed only the few layers of clothing on our frail bodies. A mere pencil was considered a luxury. Although the living arrangements forced constant interaction among the Jews, no friendships were established there. I was lonely and heartbroken. There was nothing to talk about. Any dreams and aspirations I had once bred in my young heart were abandoned.
I was forced to spend my days doing hard labor for the Germans, such as moving heavy bricks and supplies. I longed for basic elements like food or a bath. Sleep was impossible because of hunger and pain. Ironically, I kept myself alive with dreams of dying.
The Gestapo closed the ghetto, and I was sent to Janowska concentration camp in Poland, where I witnessed an endless parade of torture and death. Janowska did not have gas chambers; the Jews were shot in masses, quickly and efficiently. We had no concept of time. I was only a body with a number, living in a daze, waiting for a promising death.
The "final solution," according to the Nazis, was the complete elimination of the Jews. Not one was to be left in Europe. I am remembering this as if it were happening now
The sun sinks into the ground and it may be the last sunset I'll ever see, orange and red, then silver, then gone. We are taken by truck to a field in order to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible. No one says anything because to talk is to pretend innocence as to what is about to happen, to pretend that we are anything but problems about to be solved. Cracks of gunfire, and another group is shot. The empty bodies are thrown into a mass grave, a ditch, like discarded trash. Other bodies are left in the dirt.
Our group is called. Panic grips me. I can hear screams and pleas over the gunfire. Mind freezes, body numbs. I faint. Arms feel like dead weights, extra pieces of skin, wings that know they once could have flown. Breathless, I am sure I am already dead. Ground is cold. I am lying among bodies. Shooting stops, the wind picks up, the sound of moans and the smell of blood alerts me. I move my hand, I touch my leg. Is this how death feels? Could I be alive? Instinct screams at me to get up and run, but my body fails to comply. "Move," I scream to myself. "Move!" I begin to crawl between the bodies, luminescent in the moonlight. Some are still moaning and warm to the touch. The day before they had been people, full of dreams.
I begin to run across the dirt, my heartbeat roaring in my ears, my lungs filled with needles pushing themselves in deeper with every breath.
I run harder and faster than I ever have in my life. A life-or-death marathon. Where is this strength coming from? Am I running from my death or to my death? Inside me, a small unseen seed of hope guides my blistered and bleeding feet to whatever was to be in front of me. Daybreak, and I hide beneath a bush, chewing twigs and leaves to stop the gnawing in my stomach. "It's daytime," I say to myself. "If they shoot me now, who cares? Days and nights bleed together.
As I look up, a vision of a farmhouse appears to me and a man comes out.
"Hello, my name is Nina."
"I am Mr. Niekolawitz," he says. He holds out his hand and then I collapse.
Days, maybe even weeks passed as I drifted in and out of consciousness on the attic floor. Eventually I became aware of my surroundings and inquired where I was. I spent my days in the attic and at night I would talk with this kind family. I soon realized I would bring trouble to their home if I stayed too long. I was not willing to endanger them any longer. One night I slipped away into the darkness and uncertainty.
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