While growing up in the home of her uncle, Barbara Makuch's younger sister Halina often visited with her parents and sisters. She remembers her most important early experiences being the times spent with her mother, and her years at the Liceum Krzemienieckie, a school in eastern Poland famous since the 19th century for its enlightened intellectual attitudes.
On October 17, 1939, as a result of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and Russia, eastern Poland overnight became Russian territory. Feeling unsafe, Halina and her classmate Olla left Krzemieniec to live with Olla's aunt, Dr. Olga Lilien in Lvov, near the Ukraine.
In Lvov, following a six month training course, Halina found employment as a laboratory technician, initially at the State Institute of Hygiene run by Dr. Henryk Meisel, and subsequently at the Weigl Institute, presided over by Rudolf Weigl. Both men were reknowned bacteriologists who worked on the discovery of a typhus vaccine.
Halina soon became involved with the Polish Socialist Party, where she also met her future husband, Slawek, an active member of the party since his university days. Before the war there were many political groups with overlapping membership in Lvov; during the Nazi occupation each had its counterpart in the Polish resistance movement. Thus, from the Lvov Polish Socialist Party evolved the local branch of Zegota, a Warsaw group organized in October 1942, specifically to funnel money and give other aid to Polish Jews. Slawek was second in command. Zegota was the only formal organization to directly help thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland.
HALINA OGRODZINSKA: Dr. Olga was perfect for us; she took us in and treated us like her daughters. The Lilien family was absolutely Polonized--completely assimilated. They are from Lvov, a family of doctors. Dr. Olga's father was a pediatrician and she is a pediatrician too. Olla's mother was a mathematician, and Olla also was very clever in mathematics, so good that the Soviets at our school in Kamieniec were urging her to study in Moscow. All of that family were intelligentsia. So it is very simple why we looked out for Dr. Olga later on--we had a debt. When the Germans came it was a great tragedy for the Jewish people. That's when I sent Olga to Basha.
Typhus was epidemic in war time, especially at the front, where it was a calamity; so naturally the Germans were quite attentive to Dr. Weigl's research. When they occupied Lvov they immediately asked him to set up a vaccine production plant at his institute. It was in a school taken over for the purpose, and about a thousand people worked there, including me.
Because the Weigl Institute employees had special identity cards printed with the words, "Military Institute," they were protected from many of the repressive German measures, and so people from all the different underground organizations were working there--it was like Noah's ark. At the head of this institution was a Doctor Ayre, a military captain, I think. He was German, but quite liberal, and a good man; his only desire was that the work be done. I don't know when or under what circumstances Dr. Meisel arrived, but it was Dr. Ayre who arranged for him and his wife, both bacteriologists, to come and work at this institute. They equipped two big rooms with all the instruments needed to carry on their research. But they weren't working on typhus: Dr. Meisel's specialty was certain bacteria that grow without oxygen and are important for stopping infections in wounds, a subject the German military was very interested in. I had strong reason to think that the brilliant professional advance of Dr. Ayre had a little bit to do with Dr. Meisel's research.
The Meisels were living and working at the institute, and they were not allowed to leave. They were interned, a bit like prisoners. But it was much better for them there than living in the ghetto since they always had something to eat, and they could work. I was in sympathy with them and so were the other Poles working there, and the Meisels liked me, and were very good to me. So I thought it was necessary to speak to them, as a person coming from the outside--to tell them to be careful. But except for moral support it was impossible to help them in this situation.
During the months I was working in Dr. Meisel's laboratory I was going very often to their home to give Polish literature lessons to their daughter, Felka. Each time, Dr. Meisel's mother, the old lady, would make scrambled eggs or an omelet, always urging me to "eat, eat, eat," which I did because I was still a teenager and always hungry. At this time Dr. Meisel was beginning to realize that the situation for the Jews had become quite intolerable, and he had to do something about his large family. He saw it would be impossible to save everyone. With the help of some friends he arranged to send Mrs. Meisel's sister, Nina, to Warsaw, and she survived. Felka went to the orphanage run by the nuns of the Felician convent. Then Dr. Meisel had a long discussion with the old lady. They decided that because she was so old, the best solution would be for her to take poison. Being a doctor he could give her something good that would cause no pain. They never spoke about this with the rest of the family, and one day she was dead--like that. I was still very young, but Dr. Meisel liked to talk to me, and he badly needed to speak with someone. He told me he had a very heavy heart, but I already knew that.
One day the authorities asked Dr. Ayre to eliminate all the Jews working for him, no exceptions. Ayre explained to them that the work of these people was important for the German army, but it was of no use; Dr. Meisel and his wife had to go to Auschwitz. The Germans had some sort of laboratory arrangement in the concentration camp, a little bit similar to the Weigl Institute, with worse eating and living conditions certainly, but the Meisels could still work on their research there. In general, I think that family came through the war rather well. Today Felka is a doctor and her Polish husband is a doctor too.
ZEGOTA: Zegota began its work in Lvov in 1943, but we couldn't wait that long to start helping Jews. We were in the PPS, The Polish Socialist Party, and many of our members and comrades were Jewish. So when the Germans came to Lvov, we had a lot of people to help. Among the intelligentsia, everyone knew everyone else. It wasn't necessary to have meetings; it was enough to just meet someone on the street and tell them you must do this or that.
The need for help came in waves. The first wave was when the Germans arrived. We tried to do whatever was possible for the Jewish people, mostly hiding them or sending them to other cities. I was frequently going into the Jewish quarter, before the Germans closed it. I would come out looking very fat, because I was wearing layers of clothing belonging to someone preparing to leave. They couldn't go out carrying luggage.
When the ghetto was formed, that was the second wave. If someone decided to take the risk to leave, we would help them. Zegota was providing a certain amount of money for each Jewish person, but if you were preparing to escape you needed more. The Jews would give us some valuables, perhaps jewelry, to hide for them, or to sell outside of the ghetto where you could certainly get a better price. In those cases we hid the money for them. We even had specialists for selling these things. When someone was ready to leave--sometimes it was just one person, sometimes a whole family--we would escort them, usually to Warsaw, where it was easier for them. I did that only once, but I had friends who did it many times. The assimilated people were easier for us, especially if they weren't very Jewish looking and spoke Polish or German well, but we had some who were very Jewish looking and who spoke Polish very badly, and they were very difficult. For example, there was the local trade union of feather makers, a group of very brave women, but it was absolutely impossible to do anything for them. We could send their men to the partisans, but for these women, nothing. They refused to leave their families or friends. It was simply impossible to hide twenty people in your home.
When Zegota was organized, it was primarily for the distribution of money; before that time there was no special fund for Jews. If somebody lived underground, as Jews had to, they needed money to live: to pay rent, to buy food. They couldn't earn it. Olga, of course, was a special case. Another thing we did was to bring the people in hiding newspapers from the underground press, to help raise morale. They were very happy to have them. It was also very significant in the moral sense to visit them while it was still possible. After the second wave the ghetto was closed and a social visit was out of the question.
The last wave was when the ghetto was liquidated; then there was much less work. Some people who were in the underground needed protection, but otherwise there was no new work.
THE LANDAU FAMILY: When I was working at the Weigl Institute I lived in a rented flat with a friend and comrade from PPS, Maryna. My most vivid memory of that whole period was the night we had the Landau family. Maryna knew them very well; they were eminent people. He was a well known defense lawyer specializing in political trials. For many months the Landaus had been told that for their own safety they must leave the ghetto, but Mr. Landau was a member of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) and felt it was morally wrong to leave his people. Then, the last night before the liquidation of the ghetto, he decided to go.
A woman I had never met before visited us saying there was no place for the Landaus except in our home. I told her it was all right, and that same evening they arrived. We put them in an empty room, with only a mattress on the bare floor. It was winter and there was no running water. Maryna and I were very nervous; we stayed awake reading through the night, not even getting undressed.
Suddenly there was a knock on the door, very loud. Everybody was frightened; we didn't know what to do. The flat was up several stories, impossible to jump, and those poor people didn't even have poison. There were a few underground newspapers lying about; we started to shove them into the fire. All of a sudden the door flew open--the police. It was clear they knew very well Landau was there. They pushed us aside and went straight to the other end of the apartment after them. I heard Mrs. Landau start to cry. Maryna grabbed my hand and we ran downstairs and out the front door. We saw a police car waiting on the street, but no guards around. We ran across the back garden, climbed over the wall, and hid in the bushes until dawn when the curfew was over. No one came after us. They didn't want us; it was the Landaus they were after.
When the Germans came for Jewish people it was a little bit different than for political people. When they took someone for political reasons it was more carefully done. For Jewish people it was quite simple; they just took them.
I felt terrible; I was unable to save people who were in my house, and I had the horrible feeling that somebody had betrayed us. And then the awful feeling that I had run away and left them: it wasn't polite, but I had no choice. Perhaps if I had been stupid enough to try to do something and not escape--but Maryna was energetic enough to push me into running away. That episode was very unpleasant, very uncomfortable.
I didn't go back to the Weigl institute the next day. Somebody told Dr. Ayre what the situation was, and he told them to let me know that I could come back to work, he wouldn't object. He said I could work until the Gestapo officially asked him to fire me, but I was not willing to wait for the Gestapo. Dr. Ayre was a German. I want to be fair.
BARBARA: Basha was in Tarnobrzeg with Mama where she didn't have the opportunity to work for the underground. She was very happy there. In Lvov, in this Poland of terrorists, it was an altogether different world; the atmosphere was very unpleasant. When the situation in Lvov became very difficult we told Olga to go to Basha and Mama in Tarnobrzeg. Not long after, Basha came to Lvov with the little girl, Marysia.
When she arrived, Basha had never heard of Zegota, but we needed people, and Slawek immmediately took her in. She wasn't especially political; she joined us for private reasons, for family reasons. Certainly I was more political than she was.
Slawek arranged for Marysia to go to the orphanage run by the Felician convent, where she would be safer, the same place where Dr. Meisel's daughter Felka was staying.
We had quite a good time, Basha and I; it was very easy to be close with her. Sometimes she was a little bit authoritative; she liked to take charge of things. Since I had been independent for so many years, I didn't like that very much, but otherwise we got on very well together. She looked for nice things for me to wear. She could sew well, and made me beautiful blouses, and helped me fix up my poor hair. We were young girls and those things were very important, even during the war. It was a small society in this Polish Socialist Party. I don't even know if she was officially a member; it wasn't necessary. She was working together with us. My friends accepted her very quickly; they all liked her. We were a group of friends and we did what was needed.
Living together in Lvov, Basha was so warm. I remember that she gave me a lot of love. But I think I had lived alone more than she had and I looked at life more realistically. She was always a great fantasist, always optimistic. If one fantasy didn't work out, she would easily substitute another. It made me nervous. I think I judged our possibilities or people's intentions more realistically. But Basha's whole life was like that. The work in Zegota was perhaps easier for her because she always had the idea that everything would be all right.