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Ruth & Penina’s 6 years of Hell
An excerpt from our book, Fleeing Europe
By Sarah Goodman and Hadassa Goldberg
“With the first German expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany, Batya, Moshe and their daughters were deported back to Poland. They went to live with Batya's mother, Faigie, (Faigie was our grandfather’s sister) in her house in Kalucz. Mordechai, Berel and Binyamin were also deported to Poland and lived near their parents. Berel and Binyamin together with their families succeeded in leaving Kalucz for Palestine, before Germany invaded Poland.
For the first few years, life in Kalucz was good, and in 1937, the Winklers had another daughter, Sylvie. Takla Korba, a Ukrainian gentile woman, was hired to care for the children and wet-nurse the baby.
Soon the family experienced the bitter taste of the horrible Holocaust. When the murderous hands of the Nazis reached Kalucz in the summer of 1941, the Yungerman and Winkler families quickly realized that they had gone from the frying pan into the fire. What then happened to them in Poland was much worse than what they had experienced and feared while living in Germany. The Nazis stringently limited the food supply to the Jews. Constant malnutrition and gradual starvation resulted in high mortality rates and undermined the Jewish will to resist.
Penina: "One of the Germans' first edicts was a never-ending demand for ransom from the Jewish population. The Jews were ordered to hand over all their valuables - gold, silver and cash - to the Nazis. On August 21, 1941, our father came home and told us that he had given money to the Jewish representatives to fulfill the German ransom demand. The huge payment handed over by the Jews did not satiate the Germans’ voracious greed for war-spoils. The next morning, Nazis came to the Jewish community accompanied by armed Ukrainians. Three to four hundred men from well-to-do Jewish families were forcibly removed from their homes, including our father, Moshe Winkler, and our uncle Mordechai Yungerman. They were taken to a nearby forest, executed in cold blood, and buried in a mass grave by the Nazis and their Ukrainian helpers. It didn't take long for us to learn the bitter news. The Nazis had murdered our father, our uncle and all the other Jewish men. Mother became the sole provider for her three small daughters and her elderly mother. Our community was left devastated without its leaders.
Immediately thereafter, the Jews of Kalucz were ordered into a ghetto which the Nazis had established in our city. Throughout the following months, many Jews from surrounding villages were forcibly transported into our ghetto. The Germans had established a Judenraat (Jewish Council) to help them govern and control the Jewish community. Dr. Daniel and his family, refugees from a town in West Galicia, were ordered to move into our home and live with us. Dr. Daniel also became one of the Jews to serve on the last Judenraat in Kalucz.
"Death was waiting at everyone's door and no one knew who would be the next victim randomly shot in the streets, or who would be sent to his death on the next transport. In the beginning, the Judenraat distributed bread among the Jews in the ghetto, but this soon stopped as food supplies to the ghetto became very scarce. Our mother, Batya, had some hidden valuables, which she bartered from time to time for food.
"Mother's daily prayer and hope was that at least one of us should survive the war and tell the world what the murderous Nazis were doing to the Jews.
"The Nazis carried out aktions (raids) of extermination, each time aimed at different segments of the Jewish population. Once it was against the men, then against children and another time against the elderly. In order to save our grandmother, Faigie Yungerman, our mother, Batya, acquired a false death certificate in grandmother's name, which she paid for by digging up some of her hidden gold coins. With this certificate, our grandmother was considered officially dead. From then on she hid in the attic of our house.
“One day our family was confronted with a dilemma, shocking in its cruelty. Ghetto policemen came and demanded that grandmother be handed over to them. They knew without a doubt that she was hiding with us and had not died. Batya, our mother, absolutely refused to relinquish her mother to the Nazis. She knew that giving grandmother to the Gestapo would result in her immediate execution. Then the policemen threatened to take one of us girls instead, since they needed to fill the quota of Jews for this latest aktion of the Nazis! Imagine the horrible decision that mother faced!! From those dearest to her, whom should she choose to be executed in the town square? Mother was unable to choose between her mother or one of her daughters. Instead, her logical conclusion was to voluntarily go with the police knowing that she was going to her own execution. She handed Sylvie to Ruth, and left with the policemen. A relative, whose own mother was in the crowd of victims gathered in the town square, saw Batya among the Jews who were about to be gunned down. She quickly ran to our home and spoke to us saying; 'Tell your grandmother that your mother has been taken to the town square. You are three young children who will be orphaned again. It should be her decision whether or not to take your mother's place.’ Ruth started to cry bitterly and I ran up to the attic to tell grandmother what was happening. When grandmother heard of her daughter’s sacrifice, she immediately decided to rescue her by giving herself up."
Ruth: "I remember my grandmother coming down the stairs dressed in her best holiday clothes with a black kerchief on her head. Grandmother Faigie held her head high and carried her prayer book under her arm. Penina accompanied our grandmother to the town square. When she saw a Jewish policeman, she told him: ‘Here is my grandmother, take her and release my mother.’ Mother, hearing Penina talking to the policeman, immediately understood the situation, and quickly changed places with my grandmother. This time, Mother escaped the claws of the Nazi beast, and returned home to us. Before being shot, our grandmother, Faigie, told the Jewish policeman to remind her daughter that her Yartzeit (annual Remembrance Day) is Hoshanah Rabah (a Jewish Festival)!"
Batya and her daughters, Ruth, Penina and Sylvie, continued living in their home in the ghetto in Kalucz with Dr. Daniel and his family. On Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), in September 1942, Dr. Daniel came to warn them that the Nazis were planning another large aktion during which they would apprehend all the remaining children of the ghetto with the intention of murdering them. Dr. Daniel’s wife suggested to Batya that she and her three daughters avoid being captured by hiding in the cellar under the porch of their house. A heavy metal oven hid the access to the cellar. The next morning, at 5:00 a.m., after moving the oven, Batya and her daughters climbed down the two steps into the cellar. Wooden slats around the outside of the house hid the cellar. The doctor's wife covered the trap door with a rug, and placed a heavy cupboard over it. She promised to come back after the aktion when it would be safe for the children to come out of hiding. Since the doctor was a member of the Judenraat, he and his wife assumed that they were exempt from this aktion, which the Nazis had emphasized was aimed at children.
Ruth: "The ceiling of the cellar was very low and we didn’t have enough space to sit upright. The four of us lay there very quietly and heard the marching boots of the Nazis above us. After a long time, it became completely quiet yet no one came to free us from our dungeon. We had taken with us some blankets, candles, and food. For three endless days and nights we waited to be rescued. The candles quickly burned out and we continued to crouch in the darkness. We ran out of food and water and little Sylvie started to cry from hunger and thirst.
"By the third day, our mother realized that only the doctor and his wife knew we were buried alive under our home. She suspected that they must have been captured with the children of the ghetto. She feared that we would all die if she couldn't find a way to free us from our hiding place. Mother realized she must act. She decided to create a space between the slats, which hid the cellar under the house. For long hours, we worked with all our strength to loosen one of the wooden boards of the steps, which led to the cellar. Using this board as a lever we were able to create a small opening between the slats. By crawling through this opening we were able to escape from our death trap in the cellar. We turned to Takla for help since we quickly discovered it was not safe for us to remain in Kalucz. The last aktion had made Kalucz Judenrein (free of Jews). Not only had the children been seized by the Nazis, but all the remaining Jews as well. They were jammed into over-crowded cattle cars and sent to the concentration camps."
Their wonderful nanny, Takla, helped them disguise themselves as gentiles. She traveled with the four of them to the Citri ghetto where they found a place to live. In this way, Takla knew exactly where in the ghetto they were living. In order to keep an eye on them and help them, she rented a room for herself close by, outside the Citri ghetto walls. Batya and her children subsisted on whatever food they could buy in exchange for some pieces of gold that she had saved and sewn inside her coat. She bribed one of the ghetto guards who helped them obtain food. In June 1943, she heard from this same guard that the Nazis were planning another aktion early the next morning. When Takla came to check on them that evening, Batya pushed her two older girls, Ruth and Penina, (aged 15 and 13) under the barbed wire and out of the ghetto. Takla promised to save the girls and take care of them. Batya and her youngest daughter, Sylvie, remained in the ghetto.
For over a year, Takla was faithful to her promise and kept the girls hidden in her rented room. She went out to work at a nearby farm during the day, while the girls stayed alone in the room. Ruth and Penina had to quietly crouch under a bed or behind a sofa so as not to be seen or heard through the windows. At night, Takla returned home with leftover food, which she had succeeded in collecting and smuggling from her place of work. The scraps of food had been left on their plates by laborers, who dined where she worked. During this whole period, Takla was separated from her own son who continued living in Kalucz with relatives. When the Russians liberated Poland in 1944, a young Russian soldier helped the three of them return to Kalucz. Takla, their devoted nanny, was finally reunited with her son.
Soon thereafter, a woman survivor of the Citri ghetto heard rumors that Ruth and Penina were still alive and living in Kalucz. A Rabbi accompanied her in her search for the girls. This young Rabbi was gathering orphaned children, Jewish Holocaust survivors. He planned to take the children to Krakow, Poland, and from there on to Palestine in an attempt to bring them all to a safe haven. The two of them found the sisters in Kalucz who agreed to join the Rabbi's group of child survivors.
This was the start of their travels across half of Europe. With the help of the Red Cross they finally arrived in Marseilles, France. While waiting for their transport, the group of children was lodged temporarily in a building that had housed mental patients.
During the Holocaust, Ruth and Penina experienced heartbreaking traumas. First their father and their uncle were seized by the Nazis and shot to death. Later their grandmother and aunt were murdered by the Nazis, and then they were forcibly separated from their mother and baby sister, Sylvie. After the war, they heard the bitter news that the remaining Jews of Citri had been taken to the Balzezt concentration camp. Both their mother and their sister perished in the gas chambers. Finally, in December 1946, they boarded an overcrowded illegal ship, which sailed to Palestine
After World War I, with the defeat of Turkey, Britain was given a Mandate by the League of Nations to govern Palestine. Britain's policy was to stringently limit Jewish immigration. Many Jews tried to reach Palestine on illegal Aliyah boats, but the British captured most of these ships.
When Ruth and Penina arrived on the shores of Haifa in February 1947, the British intercepted their ship. All the passengers were sent to detention camps set up by the British on Cyprus. For six months they suffered there in appalling conditions. Having arrived in winter rags, they had nothing suitable to wear in the oppressive summer heat. The prisoners dismantled the tents in which they were housed and used the material to sew summer shorts for themselves. Food was scarce in the camps and kind Cypriot women often tossed them fresh oranges over the barbed wire fence.
One day, Moshe Sharett (Shertok) arrived at the camp in Cyprus to visit and offer encouragement to the Jews interned there. He was appalled by the horrible conditions in the camps and by the many prisoners who were physically sick and emotionally broken. These Holocaust survivors were being held in conditions not much better than those they had suffered from in the war. After seeing the terrible plight of the interned Jews, he wrote a letter to England's King George, asking him for mercy for the Cypriot detainees. In honor of his forthcoming birthday, King George granted 400 certificates only for sick children. Ruth and Penina were among the fortunate children who received entry certificates to Palestine.
After their arrival in Atlit, Palestine, the children were dispersed by the Jewish Agency to different kibbutzim. Ruth and Penina were sent to Kibbutz Negba. They had survived the horrors of the Holocaust and enjoyed a few peaceful months on the kibbutz when the Israeli War of Independence broke out. For four months they lived in bunkers while participating in the defense of the kibbutz. Eventually, they were evacuated and sent to their uncles, Berel and Benjamin, in Tel Aviv. Penina and Ruth enlisted into the newly formed Israeli Defense Forces.
Both girls survived the War of Independence, married, and established families in Israel. Today, Ruth resides in Haifa and Penina in Ramat Gan. Both sisters have included in their wills an ethical clause requesting that their offspring always reside in Israel.
Upon their recommendation, Yad Vashem decided to confer upon their devoted nanny, Takla Korba, its highest expression of gratitude: the title of 'Righteous Among the Nations' . It should be noted that our cousin Ruth
died a few years ago in Haifa.
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For more articles on Holocaust Jewish History, see our Holocaust Archives
from the July 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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