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Rita Ross

MOTL 2006, 2008 & 2012

(This testimony has been slightly edited)

My story is very like the story of Ann Frank, but a better ending. But it is also the story of my parents’ love, their instinct of prevailing against all odds and a lot of Mazal (luck).

I was born in Warsaw in 1935, but we actually lived in a small village called Wolomin. We consisted of my parents, maternal grandparents and myself. My parents had an electrical goods store on the main street of Wolomin and we lived in the back of the store, sounds grand but it wasn’t. When the Germans invaded Poland, I was 4 years old (September ‘39).

In 1940 the Wolomin Ghetto was established and we all moved in and lived and shared one bedroom and kitchen. It was during this period that my parents became friends with Carol and Mania Berman and their daughter Reginka. They were destined to play a major part in our lives.

My father had managed to obtain special documents which allowed him to leave the Ghetto for short periods of time and it was during such a time that he befriended a Polish man who warned my father that our Ghetto was to be liquidated the next day. We had only been in the Ghetto for approximately 1 year and its sudden liquidation must have been due to the fact that its population was so small.

We had half a day to make our plans for escape. My father’s Polish friend lived in Wolomin and offered us immediate shelter. We begged my grandmother to come with us but to no avail. She considered herself too old at the age of 44 and feared she would be a hindrance for us. As soon as it became dark my parents and I crept to the barbed wire fence surrounding the Ghetto.

My father cut a hole in the fence. Our Polish friend was waiting on the other side and our saviour took us to his home. That was the first of the many miracles that led to my survival of the War.

Unknown to us, the Bermans also escaped from the Ghetto the same night. Carol Berman had also befriended a Pole by the name of Anton Klimek, who warned him of the impending liquidation of the Ghetto and offered the Berman family shelter in his home in the village of Pruszkow. So the same night our two families escaped, in two different directions with the help of two wonderful human beings, not knowing we would meet again and become irrevocably bound together.

The next morning we heard screams and shouts as the whole Ghetto was herded onto trains bound to Treblinka and were painfully aware what was happening to my grandmother.

After 3 days we went to a nearby farmer. For a large amount of money and some jewellery we were promised shelter for 2 days while my father would seek some accommodation in Warsaw. As soon as my father left after arranging to meet up with us in the Warsaw Railway Station, the farmer told us to leave. He said he heard that German soldiers were systematically searching all the farms for Jews. We had to go. He told us of a nearby Church where some Jews were hiding and that we should go there. We went to that Church, saw a lot of people there and that was when my mother’s intuition saved us. She said, “we are not staying here”. We went into the woods. Just as well, that same night the Germans surrounded the Church, set fire to it, and everyone inside it perished.

It was a summer night, but it became cold and I developed a fever. We spent the night lying in a ditch full of leaves, those leaves and my mother’s warm body became my bed. The next morning we went to the Railway Station to catch a train for Warsaw. We missed it and had to go back to the forest for another 24 hours. On the way back we saw 2 soldiers approaching us. My mother decided to brazen out the situation. In her flawless Polish she called out loudly to me “Hurry up — you are too slow”. She heard the soldiers mutter, “I think she is a Jewess, but we will let her go”.

The next day we were re-united with my father. He managed to find us a room where we lived for 6 months. The Pole from whom we rented was an alcoholic, became increasingly abusive, he felt his neighbours suspected him of sheltering Jews. Again we had to leave.

My father became desperate. We had nowhere to go. Being out in the open on the streets was becoming more dangerous by the day.

One day as he was furtively walking in the street he saw two women approaching him. He recognised one of them as Mania Berman and immediately became aware that the Bermans must have espcaped as well from the Wolomin Ghetto.

He asked Mania where was she living, she pointed at the woman next to her, introduced her as Anton Klimek’s wife, Lucia. Anton Klimek helped the Bermans to escape from the Ghetto and was now sheltering the Berman family. My father felt he had nothing to lose and asked Lucia Klimek would they help us as well.

She said she would discuss it with her husband, they arranged to meet the next day and miraculously they said, Yes, they would. The Klimeks by that time had already sheltered the Bermans for 6 months and now by hiding us as well they were doubling the risk of discovery and death. If they were denounced for sheltering us, they, their children and all of us would have immediately been shot.

The Klimeks truly belong to the rank of the righteous Gentiles and their names are carved on a monument honouring them in the Washington Holocost Museum and in Yadvashem in Jerusalem. In 1942 at the age of 7 until our liberation in 1945, I became one of the hidden children.

More than 3 years of living in 1 large room, 1 kitchen and 1 large toilet, the importance of its size will soon become obvious. In that space lived Mr. and Mrs. Klimek, 2 daughters Halina and Zosia and a baby boy delivered by a mid-wife while we were hiding in the toilet. So there we were - 5 Klimeks, 3 Bermans and my parents and I. 11 of us cemented by circumstances beyond our control and united by a strong will to survive. And all due to the compassion and love for a human being that was so strong and profound in the Klimeks. At the greatest risk to themselves and their children trying to save our lives became their priority. This is surely the noblest act of all.

Our room was located on the top floor. In the one main room, the Klimeks had their bed, Halinka, Zosia, Reginka Berman shared another bed. The Bermans slept on a bench in the kitchen, my mother also in the kitchen on a foldaway bed. For the first 18 months of our hiding my father commuted between Pruszkow and Warsaw. He was able to earn some money by scrap-metal dealing. He continued to do so until early 1944 when it became extremely dangerous for anyone looking semitic.

With my father now permanently hiding with us, space, acquisition of food and noise control became of paramount importance. Mrs. Klimek and Reginka had to go shopping for food a few times a day, never too much at anyone shop. Meat was non-existent, bread was rationed. I do not remember being hungry, but I do remember having a lot of potato soup. We had to walk shoeless, talk in whispers and most important of all, had to put our trust in two six and eight year old girls not to tell about us.

For 3 years I never left that room, except on one occasion, when I became sick and Mrs. Klimek had to take me to see a doctor who was horrified with my yellow corn plexion, wanted to know why was I so jaundiced. What did I do with myself in those 3 years? I feel emotionally removed but at the same time saddened — tearful for that little 7 year old girl who unquestionably did what she was told. I could not go outside to play, could not go to school, could not go near the window. Never felt any rain on my face, or smelt any flowers. If I start delving into this too much I feel a great anger and sorrow and I cope better by recognising and focusing on the goodness of the people who helped us to survive. I accepted without any protest all limitations.

The end of war was approaching. The Germans were fleeing, the railway was under constant bombardment. I remember the six of us clutching each other for comfort as the windows rattled and shook - buildings around us were hit.

We survived it all. The Russians liberated us in February 1945. My parents and the Bermans left Reginka and myself for 1 week with the Klimeks while they went back to Wolomin to see what could be salvaged. While they were there they received a letter which was being sent to survivors warning them to leave immediately or they would be killed.

The Bermans and my mother went to Lôdz to look for a room, Warsaw being utterly destroyed. My father came back to Pruszkow to collect Reginka and me. By that time I could not walk. Three years of forced inactivity had wasted my leg muscles. I remember sitting on a sleigh, which was being pulled by my father and Reginka walking with him. We covered the l8kms in one day and we were all reunited.

The Jewish Welfare was quickly established and through their health screening they found a spot on my lungs. The beginning of tuberculosis. My parents became devastated. To manage to escape the terrors of war to face the possibility of losing their only child was too much for them to bear. I was sent to a sanitorium and with lots of cod-liver oil, sunshine and rest recovered quickly.

After 2 years of living together with the Bermans in Lôdz (we couldn’t bear the thought of separation) we decided it was time for a new beginning and new life. The Bermans went to Israel and in 1947 we came to Melbourne.

At the age of 12, I quickly had to catch up with my education. I went to Lee Street State School, McRobertson Girls’ High School and Stotts Business College.

I then worked 2 years as a Legal Secretary, met Bill, marriage followed, the birth of our son Phillip and daughter Karen, who gave us 7 precious grandchildren.

Out of one of the worst tragic periods of our history we emerged feeling devastated by the loss of so many lives, but at the same time triumphant in our survival and determined to look for a better future.

In 4 weeks time we embark on a journey of significant importance. Like 2 years ago I, and I am sure all of us, will find it emotional, meaningful and an opportunity to pay homage to our ancestors on their home ground. Bill, I and Phillip, Adam and Michael will visit the Shtêtles where my parents were born and lived and I hope to see their documents and photographs relating to them.

Through our travel in Poland we will see evidence of the greatest evil ever committed, but at the same time we the Holocost survivors and consequently you the present generation are the result of acts of compassion, heroism and courage and a tribute to the noble human spirit.