Mala Tribich MBE

We observed all the festivals but my father was not a regular synagogue goer. I attended school from the age of six, and we had a large family of uncles, aunts, and cousins, who we visited and spent holidays with. But on 1st September 1939 life changed drastically for us.

The Nazi invasion started with the bombing of Polish towns. When my home town was bombed on Saturday 2 September 1939, people in panic gathered their families and some belongings together and by evening were fleeing east; my family and I were among them. By early morning we had reached Suljow, a small town some 15 kilometres away, where my parents decided to stop, as my father had met his younger brother Fishel, his wife Irene and their two-year-old daughter Hania. But later that day the bombing started there too, and within minutes much of the town was in flames. We, together with other families, were in one of the few brick buildings in the town and it was only my mother’s presence of mind that saved us. She stood at the door and prevented us from fleeing the safety of the house. When the bombing seemed to have stopped, she opened the door and we all ran to the nearby woods. We were lucky to survive that short, but perilous run as German planes were strafing over our heads.

For the next few days, in order to avoid the bombing, we travelled by night and hid by day in the forests until the advancing armies caught up with us. It was futile to continue eastwards and my parents decided to return to Piotrkow, but on the way back we were told that our town was on fire. From a distance it looked as if the whole town was alight, but we found that some coal wagons on the railway had received a direct hit and were burning furiously; elsewhere the bomb damage was minimal.

At the beginning of October 1939 the new, brutal Nazi regime issued orders that all Jews in our town were to move to a ghetto by 1st November. This was the first ghetto in Poland, located in an old part of town with houses in poor condition. My father managed to find two rooms and a kitchen, with toilet but no bathroom. We were lucky to have this accommodation for our family of five and at some point we even shared it with my mother’s sister Gucia who came to join us from Sieradz. As the ghetto became more and more crowded we had to give up one room to another family, but we were still lucky to have such a large room and a kitchen to ourselves. In some houses there were two or three families in a room. Many Jews from the surrounding areas had been forced to join us, particularly from western Poland which was now incorporated into Germany’s Third Reich. Altogether there were 28,000 people in that small enclosure.

Although there was an official checkpoint, the ghetto was not yet surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Those over the age of 12 were ordered to wear armbands with the Star of David and we were not allowed out of the ghetto at any time. Anyone found outside was severely punished; some were shot. Within the ghetto there were curfews, and we were not allowed on the streets after 8 p.m.

At the beginning life somehow continued, we had some cultural and social activities, and I had lessons with other children. This was, of course, strictly illegal as formal schooling for Jewish children had stopped, but some education continued despite the dangers. Although conditions seemed reasonably tolerable at first, they began to deteriorate almost from day to day. There were frequent raids and searches, and the streets were patrolled by the SS with ferocious dogs. Able-bodied men were never safe as there were frequent round-ups for special assignments and many never came back. New laws were constantly being issued – to hand in valuables, jewellery, watches, furs coats, radios, and so on.

My father, who was a very enterprising man, continued to have dealings with merchants outside the ghetto, and managed to obtain provisions for us and for other families.

One day he needed to send a message outside the ghetto to one of the dealers and I volunteered – much against my mother’s protestations. My father pacified her by explaining that since I did not look Jewish there was not much chance of being caught, and in any case the message was verbal, he would not risk me carrying a note. At that time, there were still many places where one could just walk out of the ghetto if that point was not being patrolled at the time. In the event I got out easily and proceeded on a long walk to the farmhouse. On arrival I was greeted warmly and given a glass of milk. I delivered the message and the men said they were leaving with the flour and sugar on a horse-drawn cart, so I rode back with them. On the way we were stopped and the men were searched and questioned. When the policemen turned to me, I just said that I had hitched a lift and knew nothing about the men or their merchandise. I then got off the cart, my heart pounding, and walked back to the ghetto, trying to avoid any police or SS on duty. The men were taken to the police station and later released; the goods were confiscated.

As time progressed, things got worse; overcrowding and insanitary conditions caused an outbreak of typhoid. By the time the deportations to the extermination camp at Treblinka took place this epidemic had reduced the ghetto population to 24,000.

In 1942 rumours began to circulate that the ghetto was to be reduced to just the Jewish administration and those with work permits. The majority of the inhabitants were to be rounded up, selections would take place, and people would be deported to either labour or concentration camps, and in the majority of cases to their deaths. The atmosphere became very tense and people were in a state of panic trying to find ways to save themselves. Those who could, arranged to go into hiding outside the ghetto. This required not only the means to pay the “privilege”, but also connections and trusted friends outside, for if you were caught or betrayed the penalty was certain death.

My father knew a lot of people outside the ghetto and managed to secure the services of a Christian family in the town of Czestochowa. This arrangement concerned me and my cousin, Idzia Klein who was almost 11, one year younger than me. We were both to be taken to Czestochowa to pass as Christian children and stay there for the duration of the deportations.

The day arrived when a man and woman, named Maciejewski, both aged about 30, turned up at our flat to collect payment in advance. We all sat down at the table and the adults started discussing terms and conditions. I cannot recall the details but I remember the man saying he would come back next week to collect me, then the following week for Idzia. It would be too dangerous to take us both on the train journey at the same time. My aunt pleaded with them to take Idzia first as she was their only child, whereas I was one of three children, but they insisted on their original plan.

The arrangements went smoothly, and we found ourselves in a house on the outskirts of Czestochowa with the man’s parents-in-law. Life there was very precarious and we were extremely vulnerable. We were frightened and homesick and exposed to many dangers. To make our identity more anonymous, we were supposed to be relatives from Warsaw. However, we were not very well briefed and when asked questions by visitors – like the actual relationship or our exact address – we were often stumped for answers and had to do some quick thinking. Whenever there was a knock on the door we were quickly bundled into a wardrobe and had to stay there till the visitors left. On other occasions it was safe to mix. I remember going with the family to visit some relatives and feeling quite comfortable in their company – even though one of them was engaged to a German soldier who was present that day. I recall another evening when a very weird-looking old lady arrived. She wore a cloak and a scarf on her head, and we all sat round the iron stove in the middle of the room. She seemed to be particularly interested in the two of us but we didn’t know why. I learned much later that she was a messenger sent by our parents to find out how we were. There was, of course, no other means of communication. Life continued under these conditions. We both missed our parents but Idzia was so homesick that she asked to go back home. She was told that it was not yet safe as the deportations were still happening. But when she told the family that she could go to very good friends, the Mackowiaks, in Piotrkow who were looking after valuables for her parents, they agreed.

I thought that Idzia was lucky because she was back with her parents and I still had to wait. When I was eventually taken back and handed over to my father, Idzia’s father was present too and asked where his child was. He was told that she had been left some time previously with the Mackowiaks. My uncle paced up and down saying, “But she’s not there, what have you done with my child?” I was shocked beyond words. We just looked on helplessly. Many years later I learned that the couple had gone to the Mackowiaks, collected a suitcase full of valuables and then departed with Idzia and the suitcase. Idzia was never seen again, and the circumstances of her disappearance remain a mystery to this day.

My father smuggled me back into the ghetto when returning with his working party, and I was relieved to find my mother, sister Lusia and brother Ben there. My mother, father, and Lusia had also been hidden outside the ghetto. I was the last one of my family to return. I could feel my mother’s delight at having her children home safe and sound. Home was now a corner of a room in the small ghetto, two half streets housing 2,400 people. Our immediate family was still intact, but alas not for long. When people thought it was safe they had started returning to the ghetto, and the authorities turned a blind eye. Anybody in the ghetto without a work permit was “an illegal”, but nevertheless it was formally declared that the “illegals” were safe. This prompted those still in hiding to surface, but they were walking into a trap. Over the next few days they rounded up most of the “illegals” and gathered them in the Great Synagogue, once a beautiful and imposing building. They were kept there under dreadful conditions: without sanitation, light, heat, food or water. To amuse themselves, the Ukrainian Guards would shoot into the Synagogue through the windows, killing and wounding people. Among those incarcerated in that hell were my mother and Lusia. The only reason I was spared was that when our room was raided I was in bed and my mother told the Jewish policeman in charge that I was not well. His response was to let me stay while he rounded up everybody else in the room. During that fateful week in the Synagogue a lot of bartering took place; some people were exchanged for others, and a bribe could sometimes secure a release. My father used all his influence to get my mother and Lusia released, but they were not letting children out under any circumstances, and since my mother would not leave without Lusia, both their fates were sealed. On the morning of 20 December 1942 people were taken out of the Synagogue in groups of 50 and marched to Rakow Forest, where newly dug mass graves awaited them. They were told to undress and stand at the edge of the graves and they were shot. Those only wounded were buried with the dead. My mother was 37 and Lusia was 8 years old.

The SS were continually rounding up people and sending them to various labour and concentration camps. During one of these raids my aunt Irene was torn from her five-year-old daughter, Hania, her husband Fishel having been shot about two weeks earlier, and sent to a labour camp shouting “who will look after my child?” We were the only relatives left: my brother Ben who worked in the glass factory, my father and myself. As the only female relative, it fell to me to take care of Hania.

At the end of July 1943, the ghetto was liquidated. Only workers remained, who were to be allocated to either the local glass factory, Hortensia, or the big woodworking concern, Dietrich und Fischer. Being children, Hania and I were useless for these factories, and during this liquidation we were lined up outside the barbed wire fence of the ghetto, ready to board the lorries. These would take us to the railway station or some other destination for onward transmission to concentration camps.

The column was four deep and very long, and we were surrounded by guards with machine guns. The woman in front of us, with a baby in her arms, was hit over the head with a rifle. I don’t know what she had done to warrant this blow, but she was a terrible state, bleeding profusely, and it was very frightening. When we were close to boarding the lorry something impelled me to suddenly leave the line, go to the SS officer in charge, and ask if he would allow me to go back to my father and brother, from whom I had been separated. The SS officer looked very surprised, but smiled and said “yes”. He told a policeman to take me back, and on the way I said “just a minute, I have to collect my cousin”. The policeman said that permission was only for me, my cousin would not be allowed to return. It was an impossible situation; I was terrified by the choice of leaving Hania or losing the chance of being reunited with my father and Ben. I begged and pleaded, saying that I could not go back to the ghetto without her, and he eventually relented and allowed Hania to go with me.

My father managed to arrange for all of us to go to the woodworking factory, even though my little cousin was far too young to work. Life there was hard: long working shifts, cramped and primitive living conditions. There were separate barracks for men and women, except for a few privileged families who enjoyed the privacy of one room per family. The women’s barracks had two-tier bunks and the men’s four tiers. There were usually two people to a bunk. I shared mine with Hania and there were two other women in the upper tier. There was an iron stove at one end of the barracks which was kept burning with firewood smuggled from the factory. We worked in shifts, so there were usually women around the keep an eye on Hania while I was away making plywood, which was used to make huts for the German army.

Even at this stage my father still supplemented our meagre rations through his connections outside the compound, and we managed to go on, keeping our spirits up with the occasional entertainment, there was so much talent, and with whatever hopeful news filtered through from the outside. My own little cultural sustenance was in the form of meeting my friend, Pema Blachman, whose mother had the book Gone With The Wind. Pema used to read it secretly when her mother was out, and relate the story to me on our walks. For me, meeting a friend outside working hours was no simple matter because Hania would not let me out of her sight, she was so afraid of losing me.

Although we now know that towards the end of 1944 the war was drawing to a close, for us the worst was yet to come. At the end of November we were all marched to the railway station, and various groups were sent to different places. My father and Ben, I learned later, were sent to Buchenwald, and Hania and I ended up in Ravensbruck concentration camp. We travelled in cattle trucks without food or water, we did not know where we were going. I have no idea how long the journey took, but we eventually reached our destination. On arrival in Ravensbruck, we queued at a reception centre where all our personal details were recorded. Our few possessions were taken from us, we were told to strip, our heads were shaved, and we had a communal shower under cold water. We were then given the standard striped concentration camp pyjama-like garb, and clogs.

Now we felt that we had been really stripped of our personality, and our very souls, as well; we all looked alike, we could not even recognize one another. We began to lose hope, and without hope there is no survival. Depression and despair were setting in, and the years of suffering, deprivation and the deteriorating conditions stared to take their toll. My aunt Frania Klein died soon after arrival, and a few days later so did my friend Pema. Hania was getting thinner and my main worry was how to keep her alive.

We had daily roll calls which meant that we had to rise at 6 a.m. and stand outside the barracks to be counted. Sometimes they counted us again and again, and we had to stand for hours. It was in the depths of a European winter, and we were wearing thin clothing with no underwear, no tights and no outer garments, people used to faint or die.

Our rations were a slice of black bread and soup. Although the soup resembled dishwater, we were glad to have it. Sometimes we would also get imitation coffee, which was really brown water. We were in the women’s camp, where some of the women worked outside in the fields, but neither Hania nor I worked. Occasionally one of the women would smuggle in a potato, turnip or radish, but if anyone were caught the punishment was very severe, usually death. On one occasion Aunt Dora brought us a potato.

After about two and a half months, as the Russian Army approached, although at the time we knew nothing of this, we were again put into cattle trucks to travel to another concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen. When we arrived there was no room for us inside, so we were put up overnight in a large tent on bare ground, along with hundreds of other people of all ages and nationalities. There was only space to sit, lying down was not an option. My worldly possessions – a comb, a piece of bread and a hankie – were in a little bundle, which was very important to me. Somehow during the night, even in this sitting position on freezing ground, I managed to fall asleep. When I awoke, my bundle was gone! The next morning we entered the main camp, where we found total chaos. There was a terrible smell and a sort of smog hanging over everything, the barracks were grossly overcrowded, sanitation was in the form of open pits, and there was hardly any food. People walked around like zombies and looked like skeletons; there were piles of dead bodies lying around everywhere. Typhus was rife and there was an air of utter hopelessness. The degradation, humiliation and despair were clearly visible on people’s faces. You could be speaking to someone and she would literally drop dead in front of you.

Fortunately, although we did not know it, as no one could survive in Belsen for long, the war was nearing its end. Anne Frank was there at that particular time, and we know her fate. But luck was once again on my side. I had heard that there was a children’s barracks somewhere in the camp, so I set out to search for it with Hania. Eventually we found it, a little hut, with Dr Bimko and Sister Luba who were in charge. They interviewed us and asked our ages. I knew that it would be expedient to make myself younger, but in my confusion I took a year off the year of my birth, so making myself a year older! At first they said I was too old, but I pleaded with them to take Hania because she was so young, thin and frail that she would not survive in the main camp. They agreed, but Hania absolutely refused to leave me. I tried everything I could to persuade her to stay but to no avail. I told Sister Luba that I would work on her, and we would return next day. We did so, and this time, when Hania again would not hear of leaving me, they agreed to take us both.

The children’s barrack was run by Sister Luba and a team of Jewish ‘nurses’, themselves inmates, who were very kind and devoted. I know that they used to beg, steal and do everything in their power to obtain a little extra food for the children. And they also gave us loving care. The barracks was situated opposite a large hut with a pile of corpses. I recall a procession of women dragging bodies in blankets, or by a limb along the ground, adding to this pile all day long.

A typhus epidemic was raging throughout the camp and many children caught it, including me. There was no medication and no treatment of any kind. I just lay there semi-conscious, quite oblivious of what was happening around me. My bunk was near the window, and one day I suddenly became aware of people outside running towards the gate. That was the moment of liberation, April 15th 1945, when the British forces entered the camp, but my only thought was one of amazement that anyone had the strength to run when I could not even move a muscle.

Brigadier Glyn Hughes, in charge of the British medical services, commandeered what had been the German officers quarters in the neighbouring garrison town, and quickly set up a hospital; he sent ambulances and medical teams to transfer us to it. I remember wanting to walk to the ambulance and actually trying, but after one step I collapsed and had to be carried on a stretcher. It was many weeks before I could walk again. Hania was going through the same experience, but I was not aware of it at the time. A few months after liberation, after we had regained our strength, we were sent to Sweden with a group of other children and spent the following two years there.

I was in Sweden, not really expecting anyone from my family to be alive, when one day I received a letter from England; it was from my brother Ben. He was always very resourceful, like our father, and started making inquiries immediately after the war and even returned to Piotrkow to see if anyone had survived. But of our immediate family, we were the only ones still alive. I only have a vague memory of Lusia as she was so young. I don’t even have a photograph of her, but Ben obtained a copy of her birth certificate, so there is some proof of her having existed.

I do have a photograph of each of my parents, retrieved from relatives abroad, which I treasure. Ben learned from a witness that my father was shot when trying to escape from one of the death marches. Tragically, this was only a few days before the end of the war.

Hania’s mother survived the war and they were eventually reunited, but her father was killed in February 1943, along with my uncle, Joseph Klein, Idzia’s father. Hania now lives in Australia with her husband and children, as does her mother.

Idzia’s mother, Aunt Dora survived and settled in Israel but she never got over the tragedy of losing her only child.

I came to England in March 1947 to be reunited with Ben. In 1949 I met a young architect, Maurice Tribich, who had served in the Royal Engineers for five and a half years, in North Africa, Italy, and Iraq, whom I married in 1950. We had two children, a girl and a boy, and I settled down to family life, became active in the community, and when the children were in their teens I embarked on a full time course of study and gained a BSc hons degree in Sociology from London University.

During all those years I did not talk about my childhood experiences during the war, and although my family and friends knew that I had lived through the Holocaust they did not ask any questions. They felt that it was too sensitive and that it would be too painful for me. Nevertheless, over the years they gradually learned a little of that period of my life.

During the past twenty years, however, there has been growing interest in the subject, and when I am invited to talk to school children or other groups I accept whenever possible. I feel that it is my duty to speak for all those who cannot speak for themselves, and tell what happened in those dark days in Europe. By speaking out, it is my greatest hope that something positive will be handed to the future generation.