Christine Damski was born Sara Rozen in Chelm, Poland in 1918. She grew up in Zamosc, a town of thirty-five thousand, of which about twenty-five percent were Jews. The Rozens were an assimilated upper class Jewish family. Christine's father owned seven breweries, a distillery and a bank, in Zamosc, Chelm, and Lublin.
CHRISTINE DAMSKI: I always knew I was Jewish; our family observed Passover and the other holidays. In Zamosc everyone accepted us as equals. Growing up, my girlfriends were both Polish and Jewish. At my Polish high school about ten of the girls in my class were Jewish, but I was the only one in the entire class to get an "Excellent" in Polish language; no Polish girl received that grade. Really, I didn't feel different while I was in high school. The shock came in September 1938, when I went to the university in Warsaw.
My first choice was to study engineering at the Polytechnic, but I was refused admission because of Numerus Clausus (a quota system to limit the number of Jews admitted). My second university application, to study journalism, was accepted. I was a good student. My class did everything: we attended court to report on trials, went to the opera and concerts to write reviews, wrote political articles; we even learned typesetting, so that in case of an emergency we would know how to print a paper. With eleven required subjects, it was a tough program.
One day they announced that all the Jewish students had to sit on the left side of the lecture hall, to show that Jews were leftists--Communists. It was very hard; I was very patriotic, and this was a Polish university. To protest, we stood in the back, on the right side. It was at the same time that my uncle Nathan, my father's youngest brother, left Warsaw University because he was beaten up for being Jewish. Like me, he was from a prominent family and very patriotic. He didn't feel he was Jewish.
At the end of my first year I came home for vacation, knowing that I couldn't return to Warsaw in the fall to study; I didn't even want to be in Poland anymore. I applied to the Sorbonne, and was accepted. I got a passport and visa for France for the middle of September, but on September first, the Germans came into Poland. We knew that the first people they would look for would be journalists and other writers who were against Hitler and Nazism. As a student I was required to write political articles, so I was in some danger. On October 9, 1939 my father gave me three thousand gold rubles--quite a lot of money--and sent my brother Julian and me across the border to Russian territory. We settled in Lvov, a beautiful city--people used to call it "the Little Vienna." We found it was full of Polish refugees, people who didn't want to be under the Germans.
Julian: Julian was three years younger but just one grade behind me; he was such a genius, he skipped two grades. I loved him very much. When we left for Lvov, I promised my parents I would be responsible for him. I still had my passport and visa for France, and thought we would go there together, but Julian couldn't get a passport, so I decided not to go. My father and mother didn't see any need to leave Zamosc. This was at the beginning of the war; they didn't realize the danger yet. They had gone through the First World War, and knew that away from the battlegrounds, people survived. No one thought that the Nazis were going to eliminate the whole Jewish population.
I still blame myself that I took Julian to Lvov. He was not quite nineteen when we arrived there. Just after his birthday the Russians drafted him into the military, and assigned him to Vladivostock. I was beside myself! Valdivostock is on the other side of Siberia, near Japan. Julian meant everything to me; I was determined that he not go. I arranged to meet the Soviet in charge of the draft board, and gave him a very beautiful oriental rug. He deferred Julian's draft. I had only the best intentions, but it was a big mistake. Julian would have been safe in Vladivostock; he would have lived. I have very bad dreams.
While I was in Lvov the Germans threw my parents out of their house, and confiscated my father's business. But he was lucky: his business was given to a very honest man, a Pole whom the Germans had resettled from Poznan when that area was annexed to Germany. He had a German name, but he didn't feel he was German.
"Mr. Rozen," he said to my father, "they turned me out of my business, too. Just pay me a monthly wage and consider this to still be your business."
The Germans considered this man to be a German national, so my father had some protection; he employed my father all through the war. They lost their house, but my parents stayed financially well off until the end.