In late fall, rumors came that the Jews in other towns had received orders to pack their belongings and leave their homes. Many of them had simply been gathered in the market square and killed by the Germans.
One night, they woke up to people shouting and knocking at the door. It was the Nazis, who ordered them to leave within twenty minutes, taking only what they could carry. The house was shut down and they were forbidden to return to it.
In the streets, hundreds of families walked in the snow, not knowing where they were going to be taken. Miriam’s mother somehow had the courage not to go where the Nazis told them to; instead, she took the children in the opposite direction towards the railroad station. They continued to walk by the railroad track until they arrived at the house of a Polish woman who had been the maid of Aunt Ana. Her name was Bolka.
Bolka welcomed them warmly, and they spent a few hours hidden in a small room at the back of the house. From that room they could hear Bolka’s husband’s friends saying how bad it was that the Germans had shut down the houses of the deported Jewish families, which prevented them from seizing their belongings.
Bolka cooked for them and her husband told them that all the Jews of Luck had been confined into the old district of the city, where the Great Synagogue, the Catholic Church and the ancient fortress of the city were located. It seemed they had no other choice except to follow orders. They left Bolka’s house and found an empty house to spend the night. The next morning, they went to the ghetto.
When they entered the ghetto, they went to the house of a relative, which was full of people. They had no food, no wood and the water they had would freeze in the bucket. Those in the ghetto that could not find a place to go were living in the Great Synagogue.
After a few days, Miriam’s mother began to prepare a plan of escape from the ghetto, and so it happened. One of her uncles that lived in a small town approximately ten and a half miles away from Luck managed to send a few peasants to take Miriam out of the ghetto, hidden in a horse cart. A few days later, her mother, brother, and sisters were also taken out of the ghetto to live in Kopaczówka with her grandparents. Apparently the Germans had not occupied that town yet, so the Jewish population could still enjoy a somewhat normal life.
This situation, however, did not last long. Soon the Naziz came and the decrees started. The first measure was taking all the Jewish men to forced labor. Her uncle was taken to demolish the synagogue, which had been built by his family years before; he died as a consequence of an accident during the demolition work. Her grandfather also passed away a short time later, and again they were only women and children in the house: her grandmother, her aunt and her two children, her mother, and the four children.
One day, two SS officials decided to expel them from their house so that they could move in. The three women and seven children had to find an empty house to live. Sometime after that, the officials that had expelled them from their house – apparently for no reason – went to their new “house” and beat her aunt Sosia, who almost died because of the wounds.
When spring came, Miriam’s mother heard about a farm in the nearby village of Bryszcze where a Volksdeutsche was accepting Jews to work in his farm. One of their relatives was responsible for the work of the Jews, so they went to Bryszcze. Her mother and her aunt left early in the morning and worked all day in the field, but they received no salary or rations. They were not allowed to eat the vegetables they helped to harvest.
Miriam, her cousin, and her brother tried to be useful to the neighbors, so that they would give them some food. Her brother began to take care of the house of an old lady, which gave them better means to bring more food to the rest of the family.
On August 22nd, 1942, her mother was told that all the Jews in the ghetto of Luck had been taken in trucks to somewhere outside the city and had been shot and thrown in a ditch. Knowing that the SS would soon come to search for Jews in Bryszcze, her mother and her aunt decided to hide with the children in the forest. Her grandmother decided to stay and her brother was left in the house of the old lady for whom he worked . She promised his mother that he and the goods they left in her house would be safe from the Germans.
As it was summer, they soon found a place to hide in the forest. A few days later, the Nazis arrived in the village and killed all the Jews they could find, including her grandmother.
The first weeks in their new hiding place in the forest, they survived eating vegetables and fruits from the fields and trees in the nearby village. The older children – Miriam and one of her cousins – would leave the forest at night to search for something they could eat and bring to the others. But as fall came, survival became harder, so the children began to beg for food from house to house. A Jewish couple and their son were also living with them in the forest.
As the fall rains began, they dug a hole in the ground and concealed its entrance with branches and leaves, making it their bunker. It was very cool and, when it rained, the water would drain into the bunker.
On a certain occasion, Miriam and her cousin went to beg for food in the village. She knocked at a small house door and a young woman came to answer. She did not look angry as the other Ukrainians; in fact, she gave them food to eat and also some food for them to take to their family in the forest. When they were about to leave, the woman asked Miriam if she knew how to work and take care of a child; she told her that she needed to sew and did not have time for any housework, so she told Miriam that she could stay in her house to work and bring food to her family in the forest.
That was unbelievable! She came back running to the forest and told her mother what the woman had told her. Her mother was so happy that she even cried, and told her to be obedient and useful. Her mother told her that if the war ended one day and she managed to survive, she should go and tell the rest of the family what had happened to them. “Do not forget us!” she said.
Miriam came back to Stefcia’s house that same night. Stefcia told her to sleep in a small unfinished room at the back of the house; the next day she told her to take a shower and gave her some of her old clothes to wear. So she began to take care of Stefcia’s baby, her house and her animals. She did not know how to do the job, except for taking care of the baby. Stefcia was an impatient teacher, but Miriam obeyed her. Stefcia would also give her food to take to the forest.
This situation continued for several days, until the end of October. It was when, on a Sunday afternoon, as she was coming close to the bunker carrying a large bag of food, she heard men shouting. As she drew nearer she could see men wearing German and Ukrainian militia uniforms, and then she heard the noise of shootings. She fell on the ground and heard the sound of the bullets that came in her direction; she hid among the leaves as she heard the steps of men coming in search of her. Sometime after they left, she was able go to the bunker to see what had happened: her mother and the twins, her aunt and her two children, the couple and their son – all had been shot dead.
When she came back to Stefcia’s house, Stefcia tried to comfort her by saying they would not have not survived when winter came. A few days later she went to see her brother Moniek; the two of them agreed not to go visit each other until the end of the war, and follow their mother’s recommendation to obey and be useful to their protectors.
As time went by, she and Stefcia began to develop some affection. Miriam took the baby as if he were one of her little brothers. Stefcia taught her how to behave as a Catholic girl, and told everybody that she was an orphaned niece that had come from the other side of the Bug River.
The commander of the village knew Stefcia was hiding a Jewish girl in her house and told her that, if anybody would denounce her, he would have to kill the girl. But one day he came by horse and told Stefcia the Germans were coming to search for hidden Jews from house to house. Stefcia hid her in an old wardrobe and she was not found.
She learned to be a Catholic. Since was not allowed to recite the Jewish prayers her mother had taught her, she would shed her tears before a crucifix and say her prayers to Jesus, which contributed to relieving her in moments of anguish. She missed her brother Moniek, but Stefcia would not allow her to go see him.
The family of Stefcia’s husband lived in another village a few kilometers away. Both Stefcia’s husband and his younger brother were away, fighting in the Red Army, so the other daughter-in-law and her two children lived with their parents-in-law. In the summer of 1943, Stefcia decided to move in with her in-laws, who did not mind the fact that Miriam was Jewish child.
In the whole area, the extermination of Jews felt like something natural for the Ukrainians, who occupied their houses and “inherited” their goods. Everything seemed as if Jewish life had never existed in the region. When the Jews were no longer around, the Ukrainians directed their hatred and persecutions against the Poles, who had also lost their houses and fled to other places.
In the fall 1943, rumors came that something had changed at the front – the Germans stopped advancing. In the winter, when the snow covered the whole region, a group of exhausted and famished workers showed up in the village, escorted by a band of German soldiers. They spoke a strange language Miriam learnt that they were Hungarian Jews. Some of them came close to their house quite often; they looked at Miriam and said “Kishlaim,” which meant,“little girl.” It seemed that they knew she was Jewish. They had certainly not found any other Jewish child in the villages of Ukraine.
Eventually, all those men disappeared. The villagers said they had been shot and buried in a ditch near the forest. In the meantime, she heard that the Russians were advancing and liberating Ukrainian towns. The actions of the partisan groups were very important in that time, since they managed to explode bridges, railroads and roads; thus making more difficult for the Germans to retreat.
By the end of January, 1944, the front reached Luck and the city was bombed. In the middle of the chaos, among different villagers hidden in an anti-aerial shelter, she heard a woman regret that she had left Brazil, a peaceful country, to visit Poland.
Brazil? She could remember her mother talking about her aunts, uncles and other relatives that lived in that country. She also remembered her friends in the Luck sewing room; they had left Luck to move to Brazil. In order not to forget the name of the place, she wrote it on a small piece of paper, and sewed it inside the coat she was wearing.
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