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November 10, 1941: The day my life changed. We were good people - we prayed, we were kind, we never caused harm to anyone else. Still, God chose to punish us. Why? I still ask myself, “Does God even exist if he allowed such evil to happen?” My father (my abba) owned a deli in Kraków. I was working in the shop just two years earlier, when my brother, David, came in with the shocking news, “They are destroying the shops and synagogues in Germany. We must leave. They say it will only get worse”. Yet, we didn’t leave. Why? We believed God would never allow such things. We believed no man had it in him to be this illiterate and malicious. Little did we know it would only get worse. Kristallnacht. November 1938. The night it all started.
Since that night, the days remained dark. We never saw the sunrise. My beautiful Jewish name, Danka Lewartow, would soon become a series of meaningless numbers, reducing me from a person to a mere item. My simple teenage life would soon be reduced to one filled with back-breaking labor, forever caught in an inescapable cycle that could only end with death.
It all started on November 10, 1941. I remember every second of that night vividly. We had just finished supper. Being a stubborn 16 year old, I was arguing with my mother (my eema) to escape doing the dishes, when we heard the sharp ring of gunshots. The house, which was filled angry screams the second before, became pin drop silent. We knew what this meant. We had been hearing about this for years. The Nazis were coming for us. We did not know what they were going to do and remained standing there. Frozen. The door flew open, and Nazi officials came storming in, shooting around the house. The picture frame of me and David was shattered. Eema’s expensive china was shattered. My peaceful life was shattered, left in jagged remnants like the glass that lay on our floor. With my entire world turned upside down, I could only form one thought in that blurred haze: “Life will never be the same again”. With a cry of anger, the officials lashed out at my eema as they screamed angrily for us to pack. “Two minutes. Grab what you need.” They watched with an irate expression as we frantically packed as much as we could of our previous lives into a small, tattered suitcase. A million thoughts flooded my brain. “Where were they going to take us?” “Maybe they are here to save us.” I had hope. Now that I think about it. I was so foolish to have hope. I was so idiotic to believe that humans could not be that barbaric.
As we entered the Warsaw Ghetto, we were asked to check in with our names, ages, and occupations. There were about 400,000 Jews in this Ghetto. We were 3rd in line when a Jewish man came up to my abba. “You are 40 and work in a factory, along with your son. Your wife has experience with woodwork”, the man insisted in a hushed voice.
“Do as I say.”
The man walked off. We were now second in line. David looked at my abba with a look of confusion and worry. “What do we do abba?”
“Do as he says.”
Soon enough we were taken to a small room. There was already three Jewish families inside. As I sat on the floor, looking around at the 12 other people in the room, I thought to myself, “This is it. It cannot get much worse. The beds are filthy, there are 12 other people here. This is it.” I was dead wrong. Every day we saw our people shot on the streets. Men, women, children; the Nazis didn’t discriminate. I witnessed innocence being forcefully snatched away from children. Babies being shot. The SS would shoot people for no reason. They shot an old lady for walking too slowly. A 7-year-old girl holding a teddy bear was shot. I can still envision her innocent eyes as she saw the officer pull out his gun. Her desperate attempt to hold on to the teddy bear. She hung on to it with all her life. It slowly slipped from her hands and fell into the dirt. Why did they do this? How could they do this? The most innocent sight. All I could do-all any of us could do was pray. Pray that Lord had not abandoned us. Pray that hope was not lost. Pray that no more lives would be taken.
Months later, we heard more gunshots. Officials dragged us onto cramped up box carts. Anyone who resisted was shot there on the spot. There were about 6700 people in the cart. When we arrived at the camp, about 1450 of them were already dead. The train ride was long and brutal. Around 6700 Jews shoved into a small box cart. We barely had space to breathe. Children would wail and cry for hours. People would fight for snow on the top of the car, as we were not given water. Once in a while, some officials would spray water on the cars. Halfway through the train ride, I noticed a change in me. I celebrated the deaths of others, as it meant more space. I envied anyone who was killed painlessly, as it meant they did not have to endure such hardship. This was the most disturbing effect on me. I did not kill anyone, but in my eyes, I was now a murderer. I waited for the officers to come and empty the bodies, As more died, we finally had space to sit down in the car. One night, a few days into our journey, the boxcar was filled with an ear-splitting scream. “GAAAAAAS. IT'S GAS. GAAAAAS”. It was Helen Nussbaum. A woman who lived in the Ghetto with us. “GAAAAAS.” Nobody knew what to do. She screamed in agony and cried for hours. We panicked and looked around frantically, but there was no gas. Just the mundane circumstances we have been in for days. Thankfully, two days later, the train finally stopped. SS rushed in and emptied the last of the bodies. We rushed out of the car. As we stepped out of the car, our nostrils were filled with the smell of death. A little girl clung on to her eema, “Mummy it smells bad, where are we?”
We finally set foot on land, for the first time in about a week. Suddenly, we heard a deafening sound of machines. White powder fell from the sky. I held out my hand, expecting to catch snow. But this snow was different. It was powdery and did not melt on my hand. The little girl stuck out her tongue trying to catch snowflakes in her mouth, but her eema slapped her and screamed, “Diana put your tongue in your mouth right now!” I later learned these were ashes of my people being burned alive in crematories.
“Men go left, women go right, No talking. Walk fast.” This was the last time I would see my abba and David. I clung on to my eema. I promised myself to never allow myself to be separated from her. When we came to the front of the line we were asked for our age and occupations. I could have told the truth. I could have told her I was a 16 year old with no other skills than cleaning the knives my abba uses in his deli. If I had done that, I may have been burned alive or gassed. I may not have been able to tell you this story today. But in that moment something took over me. I felt myself saying “18, factory worker.”
“Go to the right side.”
I was met with women cheering. Crying tears of joy. All I could do was pray eema would join me. But she did not. God was not on my side. As I heard her answer with “50, housewife”, my heart sank to my knees. She went to the left side, with pregnant women, children, and old ladies. Soon officials rounded the left side up and marched them to a large building. That was the last I saw of my eema. Years later I found out the left side was sent to the crematories. My eema was killed. Pregnant women who were bringing life into this world were burned alive and turned to ashes to be mistaken for snow my the next round of people arriving in the trains. It haunts me that I watched her ashes fall from the sky, and had no clue. It haunts me that I may have stepped on her ashes, or had part of her fall on my head. It haunts me that such evil exists in this world.
We were taken to barracks, where they shaved our heads and asked us to strip. SS officers forced us to run around naked as they watched us and took notes as if we were farm animals being bought by butchers. We were. They threw striped uniforms at some of us.
This was my life for five years. From 1940 to 1945.
I was going through selections as if I was some sort of animal. Rock hard bread. Soup which tasted like death. People being hung in public, and shot for no other reason than believing in a set of customs. Terrorized children being rounded up on busses, as they knew they were going to be burned alive. I was watching people dig their own graves, being sent to crematories, gassed. I watched as people lost hope, hardened, and stopped caring about their family. As time went by, you could visibly see death in everyone's eyes. Some of us were living, but not alive. All in all, I was watching mankind at its worst. All I wanted was freedom and for the Nazis to pay for their crimes against humanity. All we could do was pray the sun would come up.