Book of Life Stories

Natalie

From The Adelaide Testimonies on the Courage to Care exhibition at the Constitutional Museum, Adelaide, in association with the South Australian Jewish Board of Deputies and B’Nai B’Rith Adelaide, May 29 to June 21 1985.

Natalie, from the small town of Bochnia, near Krakow, was 17 years old when Hitler’s armies invaded Poland in 1939. She is alive today because of her ability to think quickly and remain cool in the face of extreme danger, and to a series of extraordinary circumstances which allowed her to escape from almost certain death.

When the occupation forces closed off a part of the town to form a ghetto, Natalie’s home lay within its boundaries. Her father could no longer work outside the ghetto, and they sold whatever they could to survive. Conditions were so difficult that it was arranged for Natalie to join her aunt’s family in the ghetto in Krakow.

On one occasion, she had illegally squeezed through a hole in the wall to buy some food, and was stopped and questioned by a German soldier. He had seen her entering a building wearing the compulsory armband with the yellow star, but coming out without it, which was illegal. He led her back inside the building, but no one admitted to knowing her. She managed to drop the armband on the ground, and pretend that it had fallen off. Nonetheless, she was questioned by the Gestapo and locked up in the ghetto jail. Fortunately, her aunt was able to obtain her release.

Another escape occurred after it had been reported that she had not registered with the authorities. During the next search, she had been hidden, as usual, but the soldiers threatened to take another member of her family, so she revealed herself. She went with them, to await deportation at the railway station. While waiting, she noticed a horse-drawn cart whose driver was distributing bread in the ghetto. He called out to her, “Are you from the Hilsteins?” (her aunt’s family). She nodded, and he motioned her to join him in the cart. Nobody noticed as she climbed on and began helping with the distribution of the bread. When there was no bread left the driver urged his horse on, and he and Natalie drove out of the ghetto.

She returned to her home in the Bochnia ghetto, where she was forced to work for the German war effort. Soon after, her family was warned of an imminent raid. They became very concerned that an orphaned baby they were caring for might reveal their hiding places, so Natalie was sent to take the baby to other relatives in Brzesko. When she returned, she found that all her family had been taken, lured by promises of food and resettlement.

Ironically, the policy of conscripting young people for forced labour in Germany provided Natalie with escape from certain death. A Polish acquaintance of a friend of her father was desperate to prevent his daughter from being conscripted. He arranged a meeting with Natalie at the ghetto fence, and offered her false identity papers if she would take his daughter’s place. Natalie agreed. Conditions in the ghetto were appalling, and, in 1942, it was known that the end was near.

On the appointed day, wearing the scarf of a peasant girl, Natalie and her “father” went to the collection point to register for work in Germany. He brought the identity papers, and food tied up in a bundle, and cried and hugged her as through he were her real father.

After he left, Natalie was terrified that she would be recognized. In fact, a policeman did approach her and questioned her as to whether she was really Polish. However, she concocted a story about how he must have seen her on her way home from Church. He examined her papers carefully, and then left, though he was not wholly convinced.

Even in the transit camp in Krakow, some Polish policemen offered Natalie a means of escaping from the labour gangs. They were totally amazed when she turned it down.

From 1942 to 1945, Natalie was put to work making large metal tanks used for distributing milk to soldiers at the front. Part of a group of ten girls, she welded and hammered metal, sprayed acid, and performed other heavy work. At night, she slept on a straw mattress in a damp garage with concrete floor and walls, and the food she was given was meager and worm-infested. Sometimes, at weekends, she was asked to work as a nanny for her employer.

No one suspected that she was Jewish, but it required constant vigilance. “I was a good actress, and I was fighting to survive. At the time, it all seemed quite normal. Today, I don’t know how I did it.”

Natalie never returned to Poland. Of all her family, she is the only survivor.

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