"I was only three years old when the war broke out and therefore my testimony cannot supply you with exact dates, but I can assure you that the course of events made an indelible impact on my memory, not to be erased for the rest of my life. Although I was physically a child, my happy childhood was as abruptly and unmercifully taken from me as was my entire family….
The Wajsbrot and Nisencwajg families numbered 18 members in Staszow just before we were separated. In 1946 I was to learn that only two of us survived – my father's brother, Henryk Nisencwajg, and I.
The summer of 1941 will forever remain the most traumatic and painful time of my life. As the summer was slowly drawing to an end, so was my world….When my father, an enternal optimist, finally admitted to himself that the foreshadow of doom is evident, he acted quickly to get us out before the ghetto gates shut on us forever.
He explained that I would have to live with his friends, Stanislaw and Wiktoria Szumielewica… He promised that he would come for me as soon as things were back to normal. He explained all this as we set out on our journey through the fields outside of Staszow. After several hours of walking hand in hand and mostly in silence, I knew that this was a very significant journey…. The journey which was to be our last time together was over much too soon as we came upon the Szumielewiczes in the open fields…. I was five years old, but I knew that I was letting go of my whole life; my family, my world…. When I felt Wiktoria's warm but unfamiliar hand on mine, I was engulfed in the deepest grief; perhaps I knew I would never see my beloved father's face again…
I walked between Stach and Wiktoria the rest of the way to a farm in Ritviana which was to be my next home. My father returned alone to the ghetto. As we approached the farm I was getting all my instructions as to what my cover story would be. I was Iwonka, their recently orphaned niece… I was never to say anything about being Jewish and although they went on to explain all the consequences that this disclosure would bring, it was totally unnecessary. I carried with me vivid pictures of the cruelty of the German guards in the streets of the ghetto. Not only did I know the consequences, but I was a witness to them….
I was suffering from terrible nightmares almost every night…. During the day I watched for hours from my window as long columns of Jews passed on the road below me. Where were they taking them? Where was my family? Did I dare focus on any face lest I recognize my mother, father, grandfather, or cousin?....
The terror that I suppressed during the day exploded in the nightmares. Each time that I awoke from such a tormenting nightmare, Wiktoria was always there to calm me down. She was kind and gentle with me, but began to use these nightmares in an indoctrination process that she devised. She would point out that the whole Jewish thing was a nightmare; that I was never really Jewish; that I was so frightened by the terror in the street that I became confused and imagined that I was Jewish….I really am their niece, so how can I be Jewish if they are Christian. Next she asked me to call her Mother because, as she pointed out, my parents were dead and I was going to be their child anyway…. This I refused to do and we settled on Aunt and Uncle….
One day I overheard some farm worker whispering that the penalty for hiding a Jewish child is death. I knew then that in order to survive, I had to keep up the pretense of our game, even with Wiktoria, whom I was growing to love and trust. …
One morning I woke up and found, to my great delight, my two cousins in the same room with me. Lucy and Janek Nisencwajg were the children of my father's brother Henryk and his wife Henia…. After a very short time Janek disappeared and Wiktoria explained that his father had come for him during the night.
Shortly after Janek's disappearance, Lucy and I were woken out of our sleep one night and we had to dress in a hurry. Wiktoria, Stach, Lucy and I dressed warmly and bundled up in a sleigh that was drawn by horses. It was a bitter cold night. Stach was furiously beating the horses to run faster, and Wiktoria was explaining that the Gestapo were after us. One of the farm workers had informed them that there were Jewish children on the farm. Lucy and I were being taken to a cloister. The nuns did not accept Jewish children, and since Janek was circumsized it was impossible to take him there. Lucy and I had to take great care not to reveal ourselves or we would be handed over to the Germans by the nuns. I was in charge of my three-year-old cousin and thus we were handed over to the cloister as two orphaned Christian children whose parents were killed in the bombings. The cloister was in the city of Klimatov. Wiktoria promised to come back for us when they found a new place to live….
Lucy disappeared one night just as mysteriously as her brother…. Years later I was to learn two conflicting stories with regards to the reason why her father came for her at the cloister…. I will only say, to my great sorrow, that Lucy and Janek and their mother were shot by the Germans in front of Uncle Henryk's eyes….
I spent at least a year – maybe longer – at the cloister in Klimatow. The nuns did not know of my true identity and I became a master at survival…. I became very religious and took part in the confirmation ceremony in the church….
My last memories of the cloister were right after we were bombed and somehow in the midst of the ruins Wiktoria found me again. It was a joyous reunion…. I loved her dearly and felt loved by her. There was only one strain between us. She begged me to call her "Mother"…. I just could not call her "Mother". I felt that I was betraying my lovely, gentle mother…. Wiktoria's intuitive nature was very sensitive to my torment, and I loved her all the more for it….
We moved from town to town, always avoiding places where relatives of the Szumielewizes would be until we were finally liberated….. After liberation we moved to Bydgoszcz…. I was enrolled at school for the first time. Wiktoria was a teacher at the same school and we walked back and forth together. During these long walks I was desperately searching every face in the street for my father…. Wiktoria, always sensitive to my anxieties, sat me down one day for a very difficult talk. She told me of the deaths of my mother and father – leaving out no details so that no doubt or false hope could remain in my mind….
One day Wiktoria told me about an aunt in Canada…. She also said that my uncle Henryk had survived and was here in the house waiting to take me away. I did not want to hear about it and locked myself in my room until he finally left. I did not want to be a Jew again, now that my parents were dead. Uncle Henryk returned again…. I hardly recognized him. He looked like an old, defeated man…. He convinced me that my parents were waiting for me…. I was torn who to believe. I trusted Wiktoria but this was my own uncle…. I was nine years old and had to make a very important decision. Wiktoria insisted that she told me the truth and that Henryk was making up an outrageous story to get me away from her…. I decided to go to Krakow with my Uncle Henryk. I could not give up the flicker of hope that my parents are alive….
When I arrived in Krakow, no further mention was made of my parents. Uncle Henryk was a sick man and I felt very sorry for him. I was terribly lonely for Wiktoria and regretted parting with her. I guess Uncle Henryk found it difficult to handle me because after a very short time he put me into an orphanage….
I traveled with a group of orphans to Prague and later to Schirmeck, France; all the time planning how I can get back to Wiktoria in Poland. I was constantly in touch with her by letters, and I longed to return to the safety and security of her care.
The orphanage was a frightening experience…. Those of us who were alone formed into make-believe families of two or three and we vowed to look out for each other…. When I finally adjusted to being a Jew again and filled with the dream of helping to build my own country, I was told that my mother's sister in Canada wanted me to come and live with her…. Thus, in August 1947, I traveled alone at the age of eleven to an unknown country and to unknown relatives….
In a vortex of a world gone mad – my father carefully placed my hand in the hand of Wiktoria Szumielewicz – thus ensuring the continuity of his descendants and the survival of Judaism. My father chose wisely, he entrusted his most precious possession to a person worthy of his trust; a person with great empathy to his plight and the plight of all Jews in these desperate times; a valiant lady and a very special human being – Wiktoria Szumielewicz.