SYS-CON MEDIA Authors: Liz McMillan, Carmen Gonzalez, Zakia Bouachraoui, Roger Strukhoff, David Linthicum


Escape from the Belzec Death Camp

Saved by a pair of heels..

Julian Cohen

Incorporating the Narrative of Hanna Cohen (Szper),
Transcribed and Translated from the Polish

When the German army punched into Poland on September 1, 1939, my mother's family still had three weeks before the Nazi conquerors would seize the ancient city of Lublin. The family had lived in Lublin and its environs for centuries. It was a large, learned, middle class family, integrated in Polish society and culture to the degree that Jews were allowed to integrate. My mother, Hanna, lived in a big old townhouse with her parents, her older brother, the customary live-in domestics, and extended family and friends dropping by at all hours of the day.


As the Germans were approaching, my grandmother begged my mother to flee east, to Lwow, to relative safety. Lwow had just been occupied by the Soviets, by prior understanding with Hitler. Although life under the Soviets was harsh and perilous, compared with Nazi domination it was considered the lesser of two evils.


Hanna, twenty-four and a teacher of German literature, was reluctant to leave, but she could not ignore her mother's entreaties. She took the train to Lwow.


Her travails under the Soviets would end in July 1941, when the Germans, breaking their pact with Stalin, pushed east. Within hours of their entry into Lwow, the Germans sicced Ukrainian mobs to large-scale pogroms of Jews. Later, they decreed that all Jews must relocate to a ghetto.


My mother would have none of it. She decided to escape to Warsaw. On the train to Warsaw, the German Railway Police arrested her.

At this point, the commentator had better move aside, leaving only the translator. Those who saw the face of Chiron while being rowed across the Styx, and who swam back to the shore of memory, have a right to tell their story that cannot be usurped. They have a unique insight, too. The survivor of a holocaust possesses knowledge about the human species that the rest of us are rarely privy to, for he has seen people's character alloys melting even at the periphery of the evil furnace, revealing their true proportions of base and noble metals.




"They stopped the train and called one of them, a fat German wearing a helmet. 'Get off the train with her now. You'll take her on the first train back to Lwow, to the Gestapo.'


When we got off, I started asking that he let me go. I say to him, 'What benefit is it to you that they kill me; I am young, what I have with me I will give you.' And he answers, 'I would gladly let you go, but if I do that, they will kill me too.'

He hugged me, this old German, and started stroking my hair. He says, 'Child, I know one hundred percent that you will survive this war, but I will not.' And he took me on a train to the local police headquarters. I spent the night there, in jail. In the morning, they took me away, and he accompanied me.


At the jail, they conducted the first interrogation: who I am. He sat to the side. There was an officer and two sergeants, and they conducted the interrogation. At a certain moment, the officer takes a carbine off a wall rack and orders one of the sergeants: 'Take her downstairs.' And the fat one with the helmet winks at me, so that I won't be afraid. Then he got up, poured and gave me a glass of water. This was a man with a heart. And in the morning, he transported me to the Gestapo, and there I had a real investigation.


I only remember that there was a large commission. One of them walked me to the window and said, 'You see that tree? From that tree you will hang.' Everything was in German.


Then they threw me into a small cell where there were already some thirty people, Jews. Suddenly they opened the door, and threw in a young Polish woman. She cries, 'Woe, they caught me, woe.'

I didn't like the look of her. And she made like she was a great Jew lover, 'Give me what you have on you. If they find it they will club you to death, but I will hide it for you.' I had nothing left, but everybody else started digging out their last coins and valuables from various nooks in their clothing. She took all this, and then disappeared.


After a week or so, they packed the entire prison population, mostly Jews, into a sort of lorries, and took us to the Kleparowski train -- it was a freight train terminal in Lwow. At the platform, they ordered us to take off our shoes and overcoats, take off our clothes and deposit them in piles. Then they started herding us into the train. Polish train engineers stood by, and they were saying, 'Folks, jump from the windows, we will be going slowly.'

The Germans were saying that they were taking us to a camp, but the train engineers were saying 'It's a lie; they are transporting you to a gas chamber. Jump, we will be going slowly.'


I entered what was a sort of freight train, but with barbed wire. But before, when we were still being processed at the Kleparowski terminal, one of them stood -- they had a sort of steel whipping rod, with a little steel ball at the end -- and that's what they beat people with. He looked at me just so and said, in German, 'Ah, we have yet a few pretty women for the good-bye.' With the steel rod, he picked up one of my shoes and tossed it to me, then the other. Those shoes saved my life.



Read more here:


The Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team


Copyright Carmelo Lisciotto H.E.A.R.T 2010

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