Barbara Szymanska was only eighth months old when she arrived in Poland, her homeland. In 1918, her parents, Janina and Franciszek, returned to Poland from Russia where they had spent several years avoiding Franciszek’s conscription into the German army. It was the first time in more than hundred years that Poland was an independent state. Within a few years of their return, Barbara, or Basha as she was called, had two new sisters, Halinka and Hanka.
The family’s prospects were not encouraging. Halinka was sent to live with an uncle so that she might have a better future, and Basha enrolled in an agricultural school. But in 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland, education was ended. Basha’s father, who was working for the underground, was shot dead by a German soldier. Janina took her daughters to Sandomierz, a small historic village on the Ukranian border, to keep her family safe. Although the family was not Jewish, they too lived in constant fear of the Germans.
In 1942, a woman named Rachel Litowicz and her young daughter, Rebecca, came knocking on Basha’s door. Rachel desperately wanted to leave her daughter with Basha. She knew that the situation in Sandomierz was very bad and was getting worse every day. The Germans were ”cleaning” the town and shooting Jews right in the streets. For Basha, it was impossible not to be moved by Rachel’s fears and took Rebecca in to live with her. Basha renamed Rebecca, Marysia, and from then on she was Barbara’s niece. Years later, Basha learned that Rachel had been taken to Auschwitz, but she managed to escape the gas chamber.
Another person who came seeking Barbara’s help was Dr. Olga Lien. She, too, was desperate and living in constant fear of being arrested by the Germans. Basha spoke with Dr. Polovicz, the director of the school where she was teaching, and asked for his help. He was a very brave man and gave Olga a job in the kitchen. Dr. Olga, as she came to be known, was a pediatrician and when Dr. Polovicz learned this, he appointed her as physician to his family. Dr Olga worked in the kitchen until the war ended.
Sophie was another person who came to seek help from Basha. She was the daughter of a Jewish family that owned the only drugstore in the town. It had been reported that Sophie’s elderly parents had been killed. Sophie managed to escape from the Germans and found her way to Basha’s house. The situation was too dangerous that Barbara decided that Sophie should go to Lvov, a large city where no one would know her. She made it safely to Lvov.
Basha decided to take Marysia to Lvov and live with her sister. The trip was extremely dangerous, but they made it to Lvov without being discovered. Basha, fearing for Marysia’s life, took her to a convent. Marysia survived the war in the care of the nuns and when the war was over, she found her mother who had survived Auschwitz.
Basha soon joined Zegota, an underground organization devoted to helping Jews, and became a courier. She began making frequent trips to Warsaw. She carried among other things counterfeit documents, money and false identity papers for Jews. On one of her return trips from Warsaw to Lvov, the German police made a search of her compartment and found the Zegota papers in her bag. Barbara was taken to Lublin jail where she was tortured every few days. She made up a phony story, which the Germans believed. She managed to get a letter out to her sister, Hanka, to tell her where she was. Basha was then transferred to the infamous prison of Lonki where she was put in isolation. Recalling these days, Barbara was amazed she had survived. There were moments when she felt already dead, totally alone, with no fresh air, no windows, only a bit of blue sky.
Zegota succeeded in deterring her execution, and she was sent to Ravensbruck, the biggest concentration camp for women. There she had some hope of staying alive. She arrived in l943 and was kept a prisoner until the war ended in May 1945. Nearly 150,000 women were held there under dehumanizing conditions. Barbara remembers that she was always cold, always hungry. They would stand close to each other just to keep warm.
There were five crematoriums going all the time. Each morning the women were lined up while the Germans looked them over. For no apparent reason, a number of them were pulled out of the line and sent to the chimney. Some of the women were sent to take out the ashes. Barbara had to do it once. People became numb, like stones. ”We lived each day, each moment, one at a time.”
Her last ride into Sandomierz was on the evening of May 28, on the roof of a train. The station is across the Vistula River from the town. The bridge is very long but Barsha walked across it as if ”she had wings on her arms.”
Edited by: Adriana Karagozian
- Excerpts from an interview Barbara Szymanska Makuch gave at her home in Montreal, Canada, in 1986.