by Jerry Hughes
Sixty-two years ago, Eva Bialogrod was a young woman living in small Polish town. And while it was clear that storm clouds of war were gathering over her ill-fated land, nothing could prepare her for the ordeal she would suffer over the next 10 years. Now 82, and a 50-year resident of Spokane, Eva has agreed to tell her story as a caution to those who would allow hate into their hearts -- and to those who would tolerate it in others.
Many Holocaust survivors have been reluctant to tell their stories. Most felt ashamed for being so powerless to stop the murder of their friends and family; many didn't want to revisit so horrific a memory; some simply wanted to live in anonymity after being singled out so devastatingly during the Nazi regime. Eva is no different, and she asked that we not use her last name (Bialogrod is her maiden name) or take any pictures of her.
But Eva is an eyewitness to one of the darkest moments in human history. She experienced the Nazi invasion of Poland, lived in the Warsaw ghetto and was held in three different concentration camps. And through it all, she lost everything she held dear in her life to that time. So, telling her story is a brave thing, and over the course of our interviews with her, it was clear that these are extremely painful memories for her. But it was also clear that she remembers what happened very well, even if her living hell started 62 years ago this summer.
In August, 1939, tension seized the people of Lodz, Poland, mounting daily, until it became a smothering vapor that seemed to engulf their very souls. Then, on September 1, the Nazi legions invaded Poland, sparking World War II and changing the world of 20-year-old Eva and millions of others forever.
Eva was the middle child of Iro and Cywia Bialogrod. Her older brother, Moshe, was 14 years her senior, while her younger brother, Chiam, was eight years her junior. Her father, a devout practicing Orthodox Jew, ran a small textile factory in partnership with his eldest son, Moshe. Like many Jewish families, they had experienced painful encounters with their Polish countrymen -- a predictable residual from centuries of ingrained anti-Semitism. This virulent prejudice was far more pervasive than suggested by the preponderance of postwar revisionist Polish history.
Eva, for instance, can vividly recall numerous offenses of verbal assaults, and even severe physical beatings, by her Polish playmates. One particularly brutal physical attack occurred when she was only five years old. Her mother, Cywia, frequently admonished young Eva to play only in front of her uncle's store; there he could watch and protect her. This proved quite impossible for a five-year-old girl
"Which child wants to play by themselves?" Eva laments. "I wanted to play with the other children. I simply couldn't understand."
Eva's cherished mother died from a heart attack in the spring of that fateful year. How large a role the anticipated war played in her premature death will never be known. Mercifully, she did not have to witness the horrors that awaited her family.
Within days of the outbreak of war, Iro, her scholarly father, accepted the inevitability of Poland's total defeat and proclaimed, "We are not going to wait here to welcome the Nazis." He and his family set off on foot, along with thousands of other terrified civilians, for the Polish capital of Warsaw. They carried what little food and precious belongings they could on their perilous flight. Unfortunately, it soon became abundantly clear that there was to be no escape for them. The invading Germans were everywhere; there was no place to hide.
Eva's traumatized family quickly returned to Lodz and watched with deep sadness, as many of their German/Polish neighbors feverishly rushed to join their new conquerors' "Folksdauche" -- the nation's people force. Less than a week after the Nazi invasion, Lodz had been placed totally under German control. A small crumb of consolation was tossed to Eva by a Polish woman, who shamefully confessed, "We thought that you Jews were our enemies. We were wrong; now we know it is the Nazis who are our true enemies." Eva says that there were some courageous Poles who helped the Jews, and they did so at grave risk to themselves. "Unfortunately," she concludes, "while they were incredibly brave in spirit, they were also tragically few in numbers."
By November, Moshe had worked his way to Warsaw and had begun to urgently petition the other family members to join him. Within weeks, Eva, accompanied by a Polish woman concealing high-quality cloth from her father's factory, fled by train to the seeming safety of Warsaw. This contraband of cloth would provide the barter for her family's survival while they anxiously waited for her father and little brother to join them.
But as winter fell, Eva's hope would be overwhelmed by tragedy. First came news of her father's rapidly deteriorating health in the Jewish ghetto in Lodz. Iro and his 12-year-old son, Chiam, had been taken there by a German roundup of Jews that occurred shortly after Eva's escape to Warsaw. Dysentery was ravaging her father's frail body, which was already seriously weakened by rationing and the Nazis' obstruction of even minimal levels of care and medicine for the prisoners. A mail stoppage of months, orchestrated by the German authorities, had delayed Eva's learning of her father's grave condition. After receiving the sad news, she hastily secured the needed medication from a Jewish doctor and immediately mailed it to him. The mail, tragically, was inexplicably delayed, and an emaciated Iro finally died in February, 1941, leaving his youngest son alone and helpless in Lodz.
Eva remains haunted to this day, wondering if that medicine might have spared her father's life if only it had arrived on schedule. There was, however, little time for Eva to grieve the devastating loss of a second parent within such a brief period. Now her focus went to her little brother and somehow securing his immediate survival.
"He was a beautiful little boy," she remembers, "so handsome and so bright. He had a serious bone disease [probably cancer, she concludes] in his left arm that required regular extraction of fluids by needles. Yet he remained joyful and was determined to become a doctor so that he could help people."
Eva was informed that her little brother had been sent to a home for Jewish orphans. A counselor there had previously been one of Chiam's grade school teachers. He wrote to Eva assuring her that she should not worry, as Chiam was being well cared for. At that moment, Eva vowed to survive somehow for the sake of young Chiam. In a world of tumult and horror, she was now completely centered on her survival so she could someday be reunited with her brother. She formulated her modus operandi for the remainder of the Holocaust: "I became a model inmate, as I did not want anything to prevent me from surviving. I had a visual image of my brothers, and this picture literally kept me going."
Eva and her brother Moshe were later joined in the Warsaw ghetto by Moshe's wife, Bluma, and their five-year-old daughter, Debra. The terrified mother and daughter gained entry by bribing the German guards. Eva remembers the four of them huddled together in a single room, attempting to stay alive on the Nazi rations that constituted a diet that provided "too much to die, and yet not enough to live." The Nazis programmed the Jews "to live as something less than animals," she says, and their calculated deprivations and degradations were devastatingly effective.
Brutal cold, malnutrition and lack of medical care took their daily toll as dead bodies littered the streets of the Warsaw ghetto. Those bodies were quickly stripped of their clothes by desperate Jews, and the corpses were then covered with newspapers. If people carried food on the streets of the ghetto, it was immediately seized from their hands and eaten by others who were suffering the death pangs of hunger. Survival, at almost any cost, became the tormented souls' ethical code and operative program. The stench of death and a sense of doom were omnipresent.
As things grew more and more desperate, Moshe took decisive action; he successfully bribed officials to allow his family's exit from the doomed Warsaw ghetto. Tears and terror overwhelmed Eva as she watched her beloved Moshe and his family depart. They quickly made their way to a nearby village, and Moshe went about seeking to purchase his family's survival by offering all their possessions to any Pole who would hide them for the duration of the war. After weeks of frantic effort, he finally located a man who agreed to his offer.
After handing the man all of their earthly valuables, including Bluma's diamond wedding ring, they were then granted entry into their hidden living quarters. While genuinely tormented at leaving Eva behind in the Warsaw ghetto, Moshe consoled himself with the thought that he had done the best he could under dire circumstances. At least he had gained safety for himself, his wife and their child. Eva, now completely alone in the Warsaw ghetto, awaited her unknown fate.
In the spring of 1943, Eva arrived at her first concentration camp, Majdanek. She survived the Germans' retaliatory slaughter of the Warsaw ghetto's partisans (after their courageous but ill-fated Warsaw Uprising) in large part because of her model conduct. But while she was at Majdanek, Eva learned some devastating news. Prisoners from the same village that Moshe and his family were hiding in told her that Moshe had been betrayed. The same man who had accepted all of Moshe's family's valuables in exchange for a guarantee to hide them had revealed their presence to the German authorities -- for a reward of 10 pounds of sugar, she was told. The family was put to death for attempting to hide.
At Majdanek, and then later at the concentration camps of Skorzysko Komienna August (where she was held between 1943-44) and Chestochova (1944-45), Eva would witness and personally experience barbaric acts of inhumanity. On two separate occasions, she was transported to camps in sealed boxcars for journeys of a week's duration without food and with little water. A single bucket served as a toilet for the prisoners, who were packed so tightly together that those who died in transport did not even fall to the floor. Human excrement covered the floor. Eva's judgment that the Nazis treated them as "less than animals" seems inadequate in light of such cruelty.
Desperate prisoners who sought escape by tearing up the boxcar floorboards were shot by guards on the spot. Upon disembarking, the surviving prisoners were forced to march to the new concentration camp. Anyone who could not keep pace or fell, or anyone who assisted the stragglers, met the same fate -- instant execution. At one camp, all the prisoners were assembled and required to watch the hanging of two young girls as a graphic warning to anyone attempting to escape. A young woman who gave birth to a baby watched in indescribable horror as a Nazi guard came in shortly after the baby's birth and pinched the infant's nose closed until it turned blue and expired. Eva also saw a German soldier toss a tiny infant into the air and impale it with his bayonet.
At Majdanek, the commandant would arbitrarily separate the prisoners at each morning's roll call. Those he pointed to and instructed to move to the right worked and lived for another day. Those he directed to move to the left were taken to be gassed (in crematoriums masked as showers) and burned. Eva notes that on many of these roll calls, the commandant was visibly drunk.
Eva's deliverance from the Nazis came on January 17, 1945. The Germans had just completed shipping the prisoners from three neighboring concentration camps back to Germany and their near-certain deaths. The prisoners from Eva's camp were then also assembled at the railroad tracks for their turn to be loaded, when suddenly the guards returned them to the camp. Then, as the advancing Russians poured into the area, the Nazis fled: Eva Bialogrod and thousands of her fellow inmates were free at last. This remarkable woman had survived, as she had vowed she would, even after suffering through a living hell for nearly six years. At this point, she was nothing but skin and bone, and too weak to walk upright. Even after several weeks of rest, Eva barely had the strength to crawl aboard a train to Lodz. Her spirits, however, began to rise as the train approached the city of her birth and the long-anticipated reunion with her precious Chiam, her sole surviving family member and her life-sustaining inspiration.
Eva's time in Lodz was to begin the ending of her apocalyptic journey, and to start her inspirational healing and deliverance. Despite all the effort she could summon, she could not locate Chiam. For years she would faithfully water the last remaining seeds of hope that lay in the deepest recesses of her battered heart. The final chapter would only be written decades later, when Eva received confirmation of Chiam's death. This brave boy, who suffered so much and who only desired to help others, had died during the war. Mercifully, perhaps, the details of his death were lost. Eva returned to Poland just a few years ago for the first time since 1945. This most difficult of journeys, to a place of macabre memories, was made to honor Chiam.
After her liberation, while living back in Lodz, Eva met and fell deeply in love with a young man, Wolf, who was also a Holocaust survivor. He was a tailor, and he and Eva returned to his nearby village to begin their married lives. But their attempts to make a new life in Poland failed. "The war ended, but anti-Semitism didn't," she says.
The continuing presence of prejudice and hate compelled them to leave, and they eventually entered a displaced persons' camp in Germany. They would remain there from December, 1945, until September, 1949. Then, on September 28, 1949, with the help and sponsorship of the Spokane Jewish community, they immigrated to Spokane. They found their new home almost exactly 10 years after Eva's ordeal began.
Together, they raised three wonderful sons. The oldest, Ero, is a practicing attorney; the middle son, Joel, is a retired commander in the United States Navy and a graduate of Annapolis; and the youngest, Sylvan, is an employee in the computer division of Boeing.
When described as a hero, she vehemently protests: "I am not a hero. The heroes defied the Nazis, and they were shot." Let me respectfully disagree: It is true that many heroes were shot, but those who endured unfathomable loss and inhumane suffering were also heroes. Her life is clearly a triumph over tyranny.
Eva says that her message is simple: "To teach people what hate does. It is the most destructive of powers, and it can only be overcome by education and mutual respect.
"We must respect each other and our differences," Eva concludes. "We must be our brother's keeper."