The Jews of eastern Poland were under Soviet rule for the first twenty-one months of the war and hence were spared Nazi persecution until Hitler turned eastward in June 1941. Anna Kaletska never made it clear where in Poland she and her husband lived before the war, although it is probable that it was in or near his parents' hometown of Grodno in the northeast part of the country.1 Evidently he was in the Polish army, and she was visiting her hometown of Kielce when the Germans attacked in 1939. Shortly after Poland surrendered, she made the 300-kilometer trip from Kielce to Grodno in the Soviet zone; such travel was still possible in the weeks immediately following the capitulation. In Grodno she was reunited with her husband, and there they experienced the second German onslaught in 1941.
Grodno sits on the ethnic border between Poland and Belorussia in an area of mixed languages and cultures. It had been part of Poland from 1919 to 1939 and then of the USSR until 1941, when the Germans annexed it to their province of East Prussia. At the beginning of November 1941 its 25,000 Jews were herded into two ghettos, one for able workers in the synagogue quarter and the other for "nonproductive" Jews in the suburb of Slobodka. Shortly after the birth of their daughter, Anna and her husband managed to slip from Slobodka to the central ghetto and then to escape deportation, but someone denounced them to the Germans as they attempted to reach the partisans in the forest. They were separated, and Anna never saw her husband again. After surviving slave labor at Auschwitz and in Germany, she learned the tragic fate of her only child.
Kaletska's interview is striking for what it says about Gentile willingness to help Jews in Grodno and its surrounding area. A woman she scarcely knew took in her baby and raised it as her own. Complete strangers gave her and her husband shelter as they fled the city. And yet, various other Gentiles turned them over to the Germans and later identified her baby as Jewish. One could never know. Although Anna probably could have passed as a Pole once she escaped from the Grodno ghetto, and had Gentile friends to boot, ties to her family and her community brought her back even when she had grounds to fear the worst from the Germans. Once in German hands, she was virtually forced to take on an "Aryan" identity, and actually did so for a while. But this time despair and perhaps even the wish to die compelled her to reassert her Jewishness. The long-term prospects of “passing” successfully were not good, but in Anna's case the will to try was all but absent.
At Auschwitz Anna had the supreme good fortune of being assigned to a block run by a Polish political prisoner, probably arrested for resistance activity, who knew how to please the SS while helping her charges. The woman probably saved Anna's life. While Anna was in Auschwitz the famous Sonderkommando revolt of October 7,1944, occurred. Her vivid recollection of the rising is mistaken in several respects. Just one SS man was burned alive, and two more were killed in the ensuing struggle, along with 450 prisoners. Nor did any of the inmates escape. What is significant is the iconographic quality of Anna's telling of the event. The very fact that Jews had at last turned on their tormentors took on dimensions in the minds of the victims that can scarcely be imagined today.
Kaletska was thirty-four years old when she was interviewed on the afternoon of September 26,1946, in the rehabilitated synagogue of Wiesbaden, Germany. Described by Boder as "a woman of fair complexion with naturally light hair," it is understandable that she could, and for a time did, pass as a Gentile, although the idea was not always her own. During the interview she frequently fell into episodes of sobbing that obscured parts of her story. Boder observed: "These paroxysms were obviously nurtured by depressing memory associations, justifiable self-pity before a sympathetic listener, and a sense of 'guilt' at having survived. It might be said that Mrs. Kovitzka feels as if her own redemption from the fate which befell her near and dear ones and her concentration camp associates was a betrayal of the bonds of love and solidarity."
1.This interview appears in Boder's I Did Not Interview the Dead, under her real name, Anna Kovitzka.
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. www.uncpress.unc.edu