A Hillsborough Community College Student Publication since 1978.
By Valerie Zell
Author’s note: The following story is based on the life of Jurek Rawicki, a Holocaust survivor who is now 83 years old and living in Pinellas County, Florida. It was written as part of a graduate course at the University of South Florida and is based on extensive interviews conducted by Dr. Carolyn Ellis of USF on behalf of the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.
At the height of World War II, a Jewish teenager named Jurek Rawicki existed in a small Polish town named Bodzentyn. I say “existed” because he was alive, but he wasn’t living. Not really. This wasn’t where Jurek grew up. He spent most of his childhood in the picturesque little town of Plock, miles away from this. He was a skinny kid but had some meat on his bones back then – so did his parents and sisters. There was no way, back then, he would have fit through a hole the size of four or five bricks. But that time was long past. That was before Hitler’s army had come through, herded up every Jew in town as if they were cattle, and sent them to this place. Before the stone-faced Aryan soldiers dumped Jurek and 400 other men, women and children into this ghetto without walls. Jurek’s “transport” to Bodzentyn was what he called “Phase 1” of the Nazi occupation of Europe – the phase in which Nazi soldiers carefully and systematically worked to destroy every Jew’s will to live. They accomplished this by stripping the Jewish families of their positions and possessions. By leaving them to stand for hours in the freezing rain, bedraggled and humiliated. By forcing them at gunpoint onto trains and into situations that were so far apart from their normal lives and so inhumane that afterward, when the stories started coming out, others had a hard time believing that any other human being, created by God or otherwise, could be so cruel. Jurek’s father had been forced to flee to Warsaw shortly after the Nazis came to Plock and was living in that city’s now-infamous ghetto. In a smaller-scale version of the same misery, Jurek, his mother, and two older sisters were forced to live in a Bodzentyn storefront. They shared the tiny space with two other Jewish families and between them had four straw-filled burlap cots and a little cubicle containing a toilet. This was an upgrade from their previous “holding place,” a stop en route to Bodzentyn, where the Jewish prisoners were forced to defecate on a frozen soccer field in front of their families and friends. In a communal kitchen, Germans ladled out helpings of what they called soup, but that Jurek knew was little more than potato-flavored water. It had no nutrients, no caloric value. The lack of nutrition led to widespread hunger and starvation. Jurek hired himself to bury the dead. Sanitation was also absent here, and illness was rampant. Jurek and the others were covered from head to toe in lice, giving their withering bodies the appearance of constant wriggling. Since the Jews in Bodzentyn had no access to books or radios, Jurek passed the time trying to mount a quixotic counterattack against his clothes. He became an expert at squishing the revolting vermin between his fingernails, but he was impossibly outnumbered. To make matters worse, the lice were transmitting typhus, a sickness that causes chills, cough, fever, delirium, joint pain, headache and muscle pain. One of his sisters came down with the disease – she was one of hundreds. The Nazis took her to a clinic for treatment, not because they cared but because she was contagious. She survived, but they brought her back to town a shadow of her former self. Over the course of his stay in Bodzentyn, Jurek watched as most of the population was decimated by disease and hunger. He wasn’t sure what was worse – starvation, epidemic, or knowing that if the typhus didn’t kill him a Nazi soldier likely would, for no reason other than his religion. And he wasn’t even that religious.
* * *
If you were a Jew in Bodzentyn, you could move freely on one street without fear for your life – most days. The rest of the town was reserved for the “real” people. Even though there was no wall cordoning off this ghetto, like there was in Warsaw and elsewhere, everyone knew that if you tried to leave and were caught, you would likely be shot on sight. But was that worse than a slow, agonizing death by starvation inside the ghetto? The Rawickis decided one day, after a year of this ceaseless existence, that it was a risk they were willing to take. They hadn’t seen their father in two years, and they missed him. It was decided that Jurek and his healthier sister would go first, and when their other sister had recovered enough to travel, she and their mother would join them. In the dead of night, the two stole away, walking north one foot in front of the other without a compass – without anything – for 30 miles to where they knew of a train station. When they reached the town after six or seven hours, they found friends who gave them money for train tickets. When the train came they headed north to Warsaw, tense with a crippling fear that a German would ask to see their papers. They had none. Luckily, or by divine intervention, no one asked. Jurek and his sister arrived in Warsaw where they began a phase of their existence that was controlled by them, at least as much as possible under the thumb of the Nazi occupation. She worked on the “outside,” passing for a Gentile and living in relative freedom. Jurek gave up one ghetto for another to live and work with his father behind the wall. Two or three days after Jurek and his sister escaped Bodzentyn, the Nazis came through, rounded up all the Jews who were still alive, and they took them to an extermination camp named Treblinka and killed them all – men, women, and children – in a gas chamber. Jurek didn’t learn of their fates until the war was over. He had no idea that when he left he was 48 hours from certain death. That when he said good-bye that night in Bodzentyn, it was for good.
* * *
It’s impossible for an outsider to grasp the physical and mental anguish that Jurek must have endured, even when he uses words like “unmitigated brutality and hunger and death.” It might be hard even for Jurek to grasp at times. Almost 70 years later, thinking about those years in Europe reduces him to tears. He will never forget, even if he wishes he could. To this day, he remembers specific details – the smell of fresh-baked bread that he wasn’t allowed to eat, the sound of a rifle as it ripped a bullet through the heart or the brain of someone he knew. He remembers how his friends and family looked, eviscerated of every human attribute, reduced to skeletons. He remembers how they looked when he finally buried them. He says, simply, “This was the extent of our life.”