Liberation of Bronka Chudy-Krygier
After my final escape from the Warsaw Ghetto I survived for nearly two years, with Jewish Partisans and escaped Russian POWs, in the forests of Poland.
It was during July of 1944, in the Podlesei district of Poland that I was liberated by the Soviet Army.
Ten days before being liberated, I had escaped from the Gestapo. Another girl and I were captured in May and forced to work in the courtyard vegetable gardens at Gestapo headquarters in the city of Biala. Two Ukrainian collaborators guarded us and some of the other forced labourers and prisoners. Having attended seven years of Polish Catholic School, I was successful in passing myself off as Polish. I knew their prayers and genuflections and I spoke Polish without a Jewish accent.
At the Gestapo, the Polish cook, who received the garden produce from us, was kind. Occasionally she would give us small items; some lipstick, a scarf or newspapers. Knowing that at some point we would need to escape, we saved these in order to look presentable on the Polish streets.
After D-Day and the invasion of Normandy we could hear increased nightly bombardment from allied planes. The air smelled of invasion. We overheard German soldiers and Gestapo talking in low tones and we sensed something was happening.
On one particular day, the cook warned the two of us of the impending execution of all inmates – as the Germans where about to retreat from the advancing Red Army. That afternoon she distracted the Ukrainian guards and gave us time to slip through the gate. Within minutes we had to be out of sight and so we headed through the town to the forest toward a nearby village. It was dangerous to be on streets full of retreating German soldiers. When we came across some drunken Polish partisans on horseback we had to get away from them before they realized we were Jewish.
A Polish woman, living nearby, gave us shelter in a bunker under a silo on her farm. The bunker was a crawl space about three feet deep so we had to crouch or lie down day and night. The woman brought us some bread and water and so we remained undetected, even when German soldiers slept in the barn above us. We were in the middle of the front with Russian tanks pursuing fleeing Germans.
One morning, everything was quiet; no Germans, no noise. Coming out of the bunker we walked down the road and saw Russian tanks approaching. We stopped a Russian tank and screamed, “We are Jewish!” The soldiers took us in and to the army hospital.
Moving with the Russian army hospital we witnessed as the Russians liberated towns, like: Sedlice, Parczew and Miedzyrzek - there was ruin everywhere. Abandoned armaments littered the landscape and there were many German POWs. At one crossing we saw Italian POWs in their blue uniforms bearing swastika insignia. Some of the Russian soldiers told me to shoot the POWs. One even gave me a gun and told me to shoot a particular German officer. I looked into the German’s eyes and realized I couldn’t do it. I turned and walked away - I then heard gunshots from behind me.
I soon left the Russians to go to Wohyn, the birthplace of my father, Mordechai Chudy. There I met Mendel Eidelman, another Jewish survivor from the forest and we spoke about our families and wondered about their fate.
My father had been a Socialist by doctrine and belief - as was quite common in Poland and Eastern Europe in those days. Because of him, I had positive thoughts about Russia. I was terrified to remain in Poland as a Jewish survivor. I required urgent medical attention to remove a bullet from my leg that was becoming gangrenous. A Russian army doctor told me it could only be saved in a surgically equipped hospital. Poland was in ruin, the war was still raging and as I also wanted to look for family who’d escaped to Russia. I decided to somehow get to Moscow. Polish soldiers let us cross the bridge at the river Bug where we smuggled across the border.
A few weeks after escaping the Gestapo, we were again taken prisoner; this time by the Russians. I spoke many languages, including Russian and Yiddish (which they thought was German), so they suspected we were spies. We were kept at a police station and interrogated by the NKVD (precursor of the KGB) for several days, before finally being released.
I wanted to get to Moscow but traveling by train meant smuggling onto them as we had no money. Eventually a Soviet tank crew, taking their damaged tank by train, took us into Moscow and we made our way to the Kremlin. We naively expected some help once they knew who we were. We banged on the Kremlin gates, “Let us in, we are Jewish…” When the police approached, I screamed, “I survived Hitler and am not scared of anyone.” In truth, I was afraid to go to the Polish consulate because I was petrified of Poles.
The Moscow police let us sleep at the station where we showered for the first time; it was memorable. I couldn’t remember the last time my hair was clean. The Kremlin guards then took us to the Polish consulate where Poles were being repatriated. We were the first Polish kids to get there and we were greeted with suspicion. They feared we might be informants for the Soviets and the Kremlin. I was scared to be repatriated to Poland and loathed being in the presence of Poles – I believed that I had escaped them. Ironically quite a few Jewish people worked there, I recall names like Moshe and Esther.
The Polish consul spoke with us then referred us to Benny Mark who represented Jewish Polish repatriates. Upon hearing my name, he asked which of Mordche’s daughters I was. He knew my father from Warsaw. My father was a close friend and compatriot of Benny’s and of Wladyslaw Gomulka (the first Deputy Prime Minister of the Provisional Government of Poland from 1944 to 1949), from their days in the PPR, Polish Worker’s Party; a trade union - later the communist party of Poland. When the party split, my father was a known Trotskyite and he was considered an enemy of Bolshevism and Stalin. Explaining these political truths to me, Benny told me I had to leave and that while still in Russia I was not to use my family name. As he said, in the USSR, “children informed on their parents, or they hanged for them.”
I might not have completely understood the politics but it was clear Russia was not a place of refuge. Benny gave us clothing, food, money and papers and sent us to Kursk, where he hoped we could blend in with other Polish repatriates. At first, only Jews who’d escaped to Russia between 1939 and 1941 were repatriated.
While still in Kursk I needed to return to Moscow for provisions and again saw Benny Mark. He gave me coupons and some clothing from the JOINT, a Jewish organization. So on V-Day, May 8 1945, I was in Moscow seeing fireworks for the first time, and watching people dancing in Red Square. Soon I was on the roof of a train back to Kursk. In those days there were probably more people riding on the roofs than on the insides of trains.
In Kursk I worked at a sugar beet factory for 12p per day, for a 12 hour shift. My health was bad; I needed dental attention and had other health issues. My mother, Tobcia (nee Szuc), had family who escaped to Cherson before the war. I left to search for them, but they were never found. There I worked for a Jewish family as a maid. I slept on the floor and as they wouldn’t let me eat their cookies - I stole them at night.
In 1945 I was repatriated to Poland and joined the PHH “Pehah” (Partizanim-Hayalim-Halutzim) kibbutz, at Zabrze near Katowice. The kibbutz was run by young Zionists and Hayalim Halutzim and I worked at a nearby orphanage for Jewish children. In 1946 a group of us were to leave for Israel via Czechoslovakia, Bratislava. Jews were going to Israel on foot from Czechoslovakia to Austria and Germany.
Everywhere in Poland I left messages that I had survived. My mother’s youngest brother, Zavel (Shmul) Szuc, survived in Russia, but his wife and children were killed in a concentration camp. He came back defeated but was going to start a new life in France. Since I knew of some other family who survived the war in France, I decided to join him.
A Jewish organization smuggled me into Paris where my uncle’s in-laws gave me a room. My mother’s cousin, Goldie Krayka (she survived in Paris throughout the war), helped as much as she could. I later found a room at a hotel, joined an ORT school (Organization for Rehabilitation through Training) and trained as a furrier. For the next two years I was employed at Pearlman’s furrier plant.
My father’s sister, Chuma Mayerowicz, met with Gomulka in Warsaw in 1946, when she repatriated from Russia. He helped her and her paralyzed husband to enter Israel. Gomulka asked that she convey his invitation and wish that I return to Poland. I refused.
Zalman Woyland, a paternal cousin who by then was living in New York, paid the Bundt for the monthly rations I received; some coffee, a few chocolates, hot cocoa - which I sold for bread.
After liberation I started life with nothing. Everything came by way of charity and donations – the clothing donated from America. My first ever pair of high-heeled shoes was beautiful but small – I pushed my feet into them anyway. There was not much in the way of luxury.
What hurt the most was that many who offered some help or accommodation wanted me to be their maid. I just wanted to be a regular person. I rebelled against the idea!
In 1948 the Communist Party held a convention in Paris, at Rue Paradis. I went in hopes of finding some family or any of my parent’s old friends who might have survived. I saw Benny Mark and later recognized Natan Naydelhoff. Natan worked for, and with, my parents in Warsaw, making shoe uppers. He cried when I introduced myself. He told me how he had witnessed my parents and sister taken away to Treblinka. According to Natan, my father, being a tradesman, could have stayed to make boots for the Germans, but my father would not let my younger sister or my mother go alone. He told Natan that he knew “my Bronchella (his pet name for me) would survive.” Natan watched his own family taken away. He remained a broken, tragic man after that. He told me how deeply he respected the decision my father made.
In Paris I met my future husband, Hersz Krygier. Originally form the Lodz area, he and his family survived the war in Russia, in Uzbekistan. In 1949 we married and while in France we had three children. He worked as a tailor, I worked as a furrier. In 1957 we faced a choice, go to Israel or come to Canada - my husband’s family had emigrated to Calgary, Canada after the war. Shortly after arriving in Calgary our youngest daughter was born.
My excitement at the possibility and prospect of again having an extended family, decided the choice for Canada. Unfortunately, my husband’s family were a poor substitute for those I had lost. We probably should have gone to Israel.
Life was hard. I worked in a hotel as a maid or dishwasher. I never completed my education in Poland before the war and it was difficult to get a job without training or a trade that was of use at that time.
I try to be an optimistic person, but I never regained the happiness I had as a child. No matter how I laugh there is something missing. I was often angry and bitter. It must have been difficult on my children growing up as children of Holocaust survivors.
After the war I was liberated but never managed to feel liberated. There is no gravesite where I can visit my family and yet I talk to my parents and sister every day.
Three times I have gone on the March of the Living Missions with young people visiting former Nazi death camps in Poland. Why do I go back? These camps are my family’s cemetery. The first time I went it was terrible for me – yet, in a strange way, it felt good to be there.
For many years I felt of little worth and kept my suffering to myself. Now I believe it is my duty to work with institutions that educate the youth about the Shoah (Hebrew name for Holocaust). After leaving Poland the Mission goes to Israel. In Jerusalem at the Kotel (Western Wall), I feel the wall and talk to my parents. I touch it for them, “I’m here, this is for you mama, papa, and Dora (my sister).” I don’t pray in a conventional way, this is my prayer. They are there with me.
After the war, we couldn’t or wouldn’t talk. We, survivors, had no one to talk with, as we were all in the same boat. We lost our youth and were forced to be adults much too soon. We married and had children in a great hurry, perhaps to replace the emptiness and loss. In recent years, the Shoah has become a subject of media attention and we have found our voice.
I was asked by a student what I would like to be in the next life, if
such a thing exists. I replied - I would choose to be a
woman, a Jewish woman. I would choose to be me.
That is who I am. I am Jewish and I identify myself
voluntarily as such.
Published here with the permission of Bronka Chudy-Krygier.