Triad Magazine

A Hillsborough Community College Student Publication since 1978.

A Ghetto Without Walls

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

afterwards, 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.”

 

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2 other followers

%d bloggers like this: