Interview Commentary

Boder interviewed a number of survivors from the major Polish cities of Lódz and Warsaw. In both, the Jews were placed in large, closed ghettos in 1940. Nechama Epstein-Kozlowski of Warsaw was perhaps the most cheerful and open of the survivors. Evidently the twenty-three-year-old woman had come to terms with the loss of all the other members of her large family. Recently married and visibly pregnant, she eagerly awaited her turn to emigrate to Palestine.

Her story, one of the most varied, comprises several types of ghettos, slave labor camps, and extermination centers. She begins as Warsaw fell to the Germans in 1939, recalling how Poles pointed her out as a Jew to Germans and threw her out of food lines. But Polish anti-Semitism was not unremitting. Following her jump from a train that she believed was carrying her and hundreds of other Jews to Treblinka, a Polish policeman working for the Germans directed her to a nearby ghetto rather than turn her over to the German patrols, which would have meant being shot on the spot.

Her escape from the death train was the first of many bold and risky acts to stay alive. Sick in the Auschwitz infirmary, she avoided being selected for the gas chamber by hiding among the Christian patients. Later, at Bergen-Belsen, she courted death by stealing turnips to keep from starving along with the other inmates. She also took chances for others, notably in the case of a stranger's child who attached herself to Epstein-Kozlowski. Others helped her, particularly the Jewish prisoners of war at Majdanek who stole medicine to help her recover from malaria.

On the other hand, her story contains little indication of more active resistance to the Germans. The bodies sprawled in the streets as Epstein-Kozlowski entered the Miedzyrzec ghetto suggest that some of the Jews there may have tried to run away when the Germans came to deport them. By then fragmentary information about extermination centers had reached some of the ghettos. But if so, that was the end of defiance. During the period when flight might have been possible, Epstein-Kozlowski tells us that she simply "sat" in the ghetto, hiding from deportations but otherwise passively waiting for something to happen. Nor is there any indication of organized resistance to the ghetto's Jewish Council or its Jewish police force during the eight months she was there.

Epstein-Kozlowski also has something to say about the perpetrators. The murderous Christmas eve raid by the SS on the Miedzyrzec ghetto more nearly resembles a perverted game than the dutiful act of reluctant murderers. Moreover, if she was spared from the crematorium at Auschwitz as part of an effort to provide witnesses to "humanitarian" behavior by the Germans, it suggests that already in 1943 at least some SS doctors were preparing to save themselves from the full force of postwar justice.

After returning to Poland in 1945, Epstein-Kozlowski joined a kibbutz, married another survivor, and together with her new husband took the underground road through Czechoslovakia and Germany to a cooperative camp near Como, Italy, run by the Hachsharah with the aid of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and UNRRA, which is where she spoke with Boder.

From FRESH WOUNDS: EARLY NARRATIVES OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVAL by Donald L. Niewyk. Copyright (c) 1998 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.