Situated on the Vistula river in the southeast of Poland, Sandomierz is a small city of about ten thousand people with a history of commercial importance dating back to the Middle Ages. Before the the Second World War one third of the population was Jewish. In 1988, the time of this interview, only one Jewish person still lived there.
Prior to the German occupation Rachel Litowicz ran a shop selling clothing for men and women. Her husband was a tailor. They had one child who was seven years old at the time of this story.
RACHEL LITOWICZ: There is nothing good to say about Sandomierz. It is a subject I would be scared to talk about--it's not healthy. I can tell you that Basha and her family were good, but I can't speak about the rest of the population. She was not reponsible for them. She was good. That's all.
For a few years I had a store, not too big. When the Germans came in, right away the business was finished. No Jews had stores after that. Who could keep anything? We just hid. We were afraid of them, and we were right.
Sandomierz is a little town where everyone knew everyone else very well. Basha's aunt, Mrs. Damagala, and her husband were my customers. During the wartime Mr. Damagala's brother--he had once been a member of the Polish parliament--came over to Sandomierz from the border area between Germany and Poland. For some reason, I didn't understand why--he really didn't know me--he used to come and talk to me a little. It was before we knew that they were killing Jews all around. One day he came in and said, "Rachel, I want to help you get out."
"Okay, if you can take my daughter, I think I can run away."
"I will come back with some information in two hours."
When he returned he gave me Basha's address. "They don't know anything about this," he said, "but go there right away. If they don't want to keep your daughter, leave her and run away."
There was no choice. There were not too many opportunities, and no time to think it over. Who would take a Jewish child? Who would be responsible? It was close to the end: two weeks later they killed all the Jews in Sandomierz. That was why I took her then.
I had never met Mrs. Szymanska before. She was Mrs. Damagala's sister, living with her daughter, Basha, in a little village a few miles from Sandomierz. When I came to their house they were like angels. They took my daughter. I told Rebecca, "If you want to be alive, stay here with Basha." She didn't hesitate.
The whole Szymanska family are angels; they are aristocrats. Basha's sister in Lvov hid Jews, too. There were two or three girls in that family, all working underground. You know what the mother said to her daughters? She told them it doesn't pay to die for a little piece of paper with big ideas written on it, but to save a life, a Jew, is different. This was an idea from that older woman.
You don't find many people like the Szymanskas. There are some, but very, very few. The rest are not like that. I knew when I gave my daughter away to them that she would be alive, that she would be safe. I was a good business lady. I could see with whom I was dealing. I could see right through a person--everything--and I knew they were all right. I don't think it was easy for them, because they were not so rich. They fed everybody with the food they had. This was my impression. The whole family was good to me, and I had to trust them. To tell you the truth, in that situation you would give your child away to a bandit, too.
If it wasn't for Basha my daughter wouldn't be alive. I am thankful that we are both alive, that my sister is also alive, because of Basha. Basha doesn't know about this, but it was because she gave me the address of a woman by the name of Mrs. Unger, that I was able to save my sister. When I left Rebecca there Basha gave me this woman's address, in a little town near Warsaw. She was an engineer and Jewish, but her husband was in the Polish army in Germany and they had good papers; they passed as gentile. Later, I was able to take my sister out of a small concentration camp and send her to them. Mrs. Unger found a good place for my sister as a servant in a rich Polish home, and that's how she survived.
There were some Jews who tried to escape, but very few. They threw us out of the ghetto and killed most of us. All over Poland there were ghettos. We had no chance to run away. I used to go to Warsaw where there was a closed ghetto, a big one. You could hear people crying, "I'm hungry! I'm hungry!"--and they dropped dead in the street. I was there sometimes for two or three days, and I always heard that cry, "I am hungry!" I'm telling you, if you didn't see it for yourself, you cannot understand what happened. I can talk, explain, and you can write about these things, but you cannot understand anything at all if you didn't go through that hell day and night, from 1939 until 1945--so many years.
It was like being in a fire--unbelievable. At the time you don't stop to think. If you're going to be killed, you run. When I left Rebecca, at first I went back to Sandomierz where my husband was, but later I was here and there, in so many different places. Sometimes I could find a place to hide in the home of gentiles. I took chances: I went out, knowing that if they caught me they would kill me. If I stayed in hiding they would kill me too. I was not the type to sit in a concentration camp, so I would run away, and they always caught me. If they caught you, they would usually kill you, but listen, I had nothing to lose; it was such an awful situation. They killed my husband at Buchenwald.
I don't know why I survived. So many times they got me--so many times. Whenever I could, I escaped, except from Auschwitz. From Auschwitz I couldn't run away, but I ran away from everywhere else--from Sandomierz, from Germany. I was hiding a lot. Sometimes people helped me. Sometimes you pretend you're not Jewish, and sometimes you're in hiding, and they get you. I can't tell you about it.
I was not in Auschwitz for very long, from August, I would say, until maybe November. They took us to an airplane parts factory in Germany where I worked until February. Then they took us further into Germany, because the Russians were advancing. When we were going deeper into Germany I ran away and hid in an empty house, alone. On the 8th of May, the Russians came; Germany had already capitulated. Somebody said, "Oh, look at what's going on in the road, there are so many cars, people are running..." In a few hours the Russians came and I knew I was liberated.
I wanted to go back to Sandomierz right away, but I was scared to go so far. I couldn't speak German, although Yiddish is not so different, but I was scared to talk, afraid that people would recognize me as a Jew. A few weeks later I went back on a train.
When I returned, the Szymanskas told me that Rebecca was in a convent in Lvov. This was not so easy because Lvov was now part of Russia, but fortunately I found out that they had moved the convent back to Poland. When I went to get her she was wearing a cross, but she understood, poor girl. Rebecca said she used to get down from her bed to pray she would be with mama and father, that we would be alive. The priests and nuns were not so bad since they knowingly took in Jewish children. They were kind to me--well, most of them--and they treated my daughter very well. She studied, and was very good in school, very intelligent. They loved her.
After the war a few Jews came back for awhile to Sandomierz. I was not there very long--maybe a month--then I had to run away. I could not escape the times: there was no place for us there anymore. It was dangerous. I can't tell you why. There are things that I have to hold back.
You know what Herzl said, "A Jew suffers not just for the bad things but for the good things, too." It is true. We didn't do anything bad. We didn't drink, we didn't kill. You know the story: you go to the jail, you don't find Jews there--well, very few, very, very seldom. But still they complain that the Jews are no good. I am talking about the world in general. Here in Canada it is different, you don't come across this. You are not treated badly here. You have freedom. Some people may complain, but I'm telling you, I can not complain about what I have seen on this continent. I have never had trouble as long as I've been here, not from the government, not from the neighbors, not from anyone. Poland was different.
Rachel Litowitz gave this interview in 1988 in Montreal, Canada