The Witnesses' Uprising Reports
The Wartime Memoirs of Leon Kopleman
Occupation, the Ghetto
I was born in Warsaw, in 1924. Before that my parents already had one daughter, Guta, who was born on 27th of October 1918. She graduated from The Union of Teachers Secondary School. For two years she studied at the University of Warsaw, got married in 1938, and left for Palestine with her husband. Currently she resides in Israel.
My parents owned a store, which was managed by my mom. The company was called "Bronislawa". It was a nice clothes store and our material standing was very decent, we weren't rich but managed quite well. My younger years passed by without any problems. I had a lot of friends, mainly Polish. Our neighbourhood was populated by the Polish people, and there were few Jews living there. They most often lived in the so called Jewish borough, and the Nalewski street was quite popular among them.
I was attending Polish school at Poznanska street in Warsaw. After I graduated I studied in secondary school for two years.
Out on a stroll with Fredek Ajdelbaum, friend from secondary school
Unfortunately, my education was ended at this moment by the war, which broke out for the next six years. Later I had various adventures since I wanted to go to Palestine, to join my father and sister. Sadly, my mother was captured by the Germans in the Ghetto in 1942 and transported to Treblinka. I didn't hear from her after that never again.
Let's go back to the beginning of the war. Before the war, when its outbreak was already sure according to the press, we undertook various preparations. Among other things we dug trenches in parks, garden and yards. They were supposed to serve as air-raid shelters. I was also a member of AADL (Airborne and Antigas Defence League). Everybody awaited the war's outbreak, which took place on the 1st of September 1939.
The exact same day the Germans started their invasion on Poland, they began bombarding Warsaw heavily. A lot of buildings were damaged, considerable amounts of people were killed or injured, the panic burst out. The time went by. We lived on the ground floor, in a fairly big apartment. It consisted of 3 rooms and a huge kitchen, connected with our store at Krucza street.
The kitchen was situated a bit below the apartment and had a separate entrance form the gateway. Our building was very big and had 3 yards. All the tenants, especially those living on the upper floors, gathered in our kitchen. There were several dozens of people there and everybody thought it would be quite a safe place for the time for bombing. Luckily, our building wasn't damaged at all. In the kitchen there were still many people and my mom tried to take care of them. She had a number of big pots, in which she cooked for the neighbours. Under such circumstances we soon run out of stockpiles, so together with other boys we started looking for the supply possibilities.
When the fires in Warsaw started, national food warehouses were opened in the Swiss Valley Park and everybody was allowed to take everything they could carry. We took bags of flour and sugar and dragged them back home to Krucza. They really came in handy later. In Czerniakow there was a pickles factory. When it caught fire form German bombs we heard the radio announcement that it was possible for the people to go there and gather big cans of pickles. Naturally, we jumped at the opportunity.
Evidently, our supply situation was rather tough. We had no meat at all. Sometimes we managed to get some horse meat, from the killed animals. I can still remember how tasty it was.
More less one week after the war started, the mayor of Warsaw announced that all men, starting from the teenagers and ending at the elderly, needed to leave the city and march east, towards Russia. I decided to go with them. I saw my mother off and began walking towards the Poniatowski bridge. As I approached the bridge I saw swarms of people there, the whole place literally turned black because of them. I started thinking about these people. They were all on foot. Where were they going to get? Few kilometers outside the city probably. Where were they going to spend the night? What were they going to eat and do next? I realized it was a stupid idea to go farther with them and decided to go back home.
It turned out I made the right choice. Those who kept on walking were battered by the German airplanes and many of them got killed or injured. Others managed to get to the countryside but had no place to stay there and nothing to eat. As a result, the majority of them took the trouble to go back to Warsaw.
Later the occupation commenced. The Germans were capturing people with Semitic appearance and Jews on the streets and forcing them to work. I was caught as well. In the neighbourhood there were many ruined houses, among others the German embassy at Piekna street, nearby my house. We had to work several hours a everyday, getting rid of the debris, without being paid of course. It lasted for a couple of days.
After that an announcement came out - on order for all the Jews to prepare to leave the Aryan part of Warsaw. All were supposed to move to the Jewish borough, where a ghetto was to be built, exclusively for the Jews. The possibility of exchanging flats with the Polish people, who were living in the future ghetto, was allowed. Poles were forced to leave their homes as well and soon ads offering flat exchange appeared all over town.
We found a gentleman who lived at Ceglana street. Although his flat was much smaller than ours we were happy to have the flat exchanged at all. We transported all our belongings on a horse carriage and moved into the Ghetto.
After some time, in line with the German order, the Jews started building a wall with several gates in it around the Ghetto. They were not allowed to leave the Ghetto, and Poles couldn't enter it without a special permission. New posters appeared around the city. They falsely warned against contagious diseases, like typhus, spreading in the Ghetto, and advised the people to stay away.
The Ghetto was in a terrible ordeal. Germans brought there Jews form all around Warsaw. All the facilities were overcrowded. There were no sanitary means and diseases began to spread. The Jewish underclass brought there had no food and place to sleep.
As the time went by, special actions began to take place. Jews were captured, brought to Umschlagplatz and transported to concentration camps.
In one of such actions, after about 2 years in the Ghetto, in June of 1942, my mother was caught. When I came back home from work she was gone. She was taken to Treblinka, and sadly, I didn't hear from her ever again.
The situation in the Ghetto kept worsening. There was nothing to eat and corpses of those who starved to death were found every day. Dead babies' bodies were taken away on trolleys. They were to be buried in mass graves.
I registered with the Germans to work for them. They were frequenting the Ghetto and gathering groups of Jews for various works. I was in one of such 30-persons group and we were working at the Narutowicz Square. Before the war there used to be a huge dormitory there, which contained about 1,000 rooms. Now, German military police stationed there. They were collecting us from the Ghetto each day.
We were unloading coal and coke from train cars to trolleys. Two of us were unloading 20 to 30 tons and others were busy unloading the trolleys in the dorm at the Narutowicz Square. We were also working in the stables since so called Schutzpolizei was equipped with horses as well. The work was very hard but we were at least given something to eat and sometimes we could bring that food back home. My days were passing by like this.
In 1942 another German action, one of these which were repeating every couple of months, took place. The Germans didn't come to pick us up for work and we hid in the hole we had previously dug. We put an old door over it to mask it, and waited there until the action was over.
During the next action, which started in January 1943, we hid in our hole once again, there was already snow on the masking door. In the meantime we showed one of the military policeman who was picking us up for work where our shelter was. Germans cared about our contribution and were totally helpless without us. During the January action Hans, the policeman, arrived to the Ghetto in a armoured car.
He knew where to look for us. He came to the snow-capped door and called : "It's me, Hans! Come out!". We left our hiding. He said he came to take us to work. We thought for a minute if he was telling the truth or he just came to finish us. Some from our group hid in the shelter in the house on the other side of the street. We consulted each other and didn't know what to do. Should we call our friends out or pretend that we didn't know where they were? Finally, we decided that if we were to be dead then it should be all of us, the whole group. They came out of their hiding as well and the military policeman took us out of the Ghetto. The whole action lasted for quite a short time.
Then the fighting in the Ghetto began. Underground JCO groups (Jewish Combat Organization) started fighting the Germans. After the shootings the enemy left the Ghetto for sometime. At that time we stayed in the dormitory at the Narutowicz Square. We kept working there until the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising broke out in April of 1943. Since then we weren't needed for work anymore.
I have a book which I got a few years back from Mr. Leon Wanat. It's entitled "Behind the Pawiak's Walls"("Za Murami Pawiaka"). Mr. Wanat was once a writer at Pawiak, and had various letters coming from the former prisoners. The book contains huge lists of names of Polish people who were arrested by the Germans and imprisoned at Pawiak. A lot of them were then executed in the building opposite Pawiak or at the Zamenhoff Square. Others were send to concentration camps in different directions. The book was published for several times by "Ksiazka i Wiedza".
After the Ghetto was closed, Germans established a sort of Jewish police, which was called Hilfspolizei- supporting police. One of their tasks was to gather Jews in difficult conditions and bring them to Umschlagplatz, where trains to camps were leaving from. Since these Jews were homeless and starving Germans were using many different methods to trick them to come to Umschlagplatz voluntarily. For example they were promising all those who came there 2 kilos of marmalade. Some people believed and went there. But all the time Germans were lying in order to encourage Jewish people to this transport to death.
The other time they announced that anybody having a sewing machine should register with the so called "shops" - workshops, belonging to German companies such as Tebens, Schulz or to the brush factory. It was told that these who register would be given a special document - Arbeitskarte, which would prevent them being transported to the camp as long as one would work. It soon turned out that during the next action all the people were caught, these with and without special documents. The same applied to the Jewish policemen, who were promised safety for themselves and their families, but were later on killed together with their relatives.
Some letters from the camp in Trawniki were coming. They were allegedly written by the Jews, who were describing wonderful conditions they had in the camp. I think that people were writing these letters under constraint, since everything was set up in a way to encourage the Jews to voluntarily go to the camps.
As I mentioned before, sanitary conditions in the Ghetto were terrible. Children were starving to death, infectious diseases started spreading and soon real epidemics burst out. Because of that the Germans marked Ghetto walls and gates with warnings that it was a dangerous zone, to be kept away from.
Transport actions took place every couple of months. Each time the Germans were once again lying about providing people with solid working documents, which would guarantee safety and freedom. People had no choice but believe it and were deluded, hoping for survival.
The last action started on 19th of April 1943. We already weren't working at that time. Just as last time, when the Germans entered the Ghetto they were raked and suffered losses. Therefore, they changed their strategy. They surrounded the Ghetto with many soldiers, brought in artillery and started burning one house after another. We had some trenches and shelters in the Ghetto, but there was no escaping the fire. Under these circumstances, we, including those who were members of underground organizations fighting the Germans, had no choice but to surrender. Everybody was taken to Umschlagplatz. I decided I didn't want to be burned alive, I put away my weapon and surrendered with the others.
The conditions at Umschlagplatz were disastrous. Germans were shooting over people's heads, everybody was terrified. Suddenly I was in a 30-40 people group formed by the Germans. They started asking us about our occupations. I had none and didn't know what to say to them. Then I heard men standing next to me answering thet they were a driver and a mechanic. I decided to say something like that as well. Next, together with the two men we were taken to the East Railway Station in Warsaw. We were working there for about 3 months, dealing with different kinds of scrap iron. It was nearby the Ghetto and everyday we could hear cannon shots and see flames, especially at night. The Ghetto stood in flames for over 3 months.
At the time of the final liquidation of the Ghetto small groups of Jews managed to escape it using the sewers. Then they joined the underground army and some of them survived the war.
One day we noticed that armed Germans surrounded the barracks where we stayed and picked about 30 people from our group. We were taken to Gesiowka (Nazi concentration camp in Warsaw). From there we were everyday transported to Dynasy, a place where two German garages were situated. One of them was for Schupo, German military police. In the second one cars belonging to Gestapo, which headquarter were in Szucha Avenue, were repaired.
We worked there together with Polish workers, who were paid. We didn't receive any money, at best we were given some food at Gesiowka. After some time we got to know the Polish workers who told us that before we came, there used to be some Jewish skilled workers in the garages as well. Then a conflict developed between the Einsatzgruppe members, who were taking the Jews away to the camps, and the management of the garages. To former wanted to capture the workers, and the leadership was strongly against it, since they didn't want to lose good specialists. According to them, losing Jewish workers would effect in worsening conditions of Gestapo cars serviced in the garages. This conflict went on for some time.
Finally, the Einsatzgruppe had their way and they took the Jews away, telling the management that the new workers were already on their way. It was not sure what exactly happened to the Jewish mechanics who were taken await, probably they ended in the camps. That was how we were hired to work there. Obviously, there were nearly no skilled mechanics among us. Nevertheless, we were doing everything we could the best we were able to, and soon we learned the trade form the Polish workers.
One day we were told that we were moving from Gesiowka to Pawiak. Since then the Germans would transport us everyday to Dynasy or sometimes we were coming back on foot, under the German escort.
At Pawiak we frequently saw Polish hostages being executed. Every couple of weeks the Germans would arrest members of the Polish intellectual elite, like doctors or lawyers. Then the notice would always come out saying that if any assassination against a German official was held, the arrested hostages would be killed. The promise was kept every time. On many occasions we saw the hostages being walked out, wearing only their underwear and being blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their backs. We also heard, or sometimes saw, how they were executed in the gate at Pawia street, opposite Pawiak. Executions were also taking place at Zamenhof Square. It happened repeatedly.
Everyday we went to work. At Pawiak there were several Jews, responsible for different tasks. There was a tinsmith Fronenberg with his son Max. There was also a man, whose name I don't remember, but we used to call him "rabbit guy" since he was breeding rabbits there. Germans used to take them home for holidays, apparently the situation with meat was poor in Germany at that time.
Prisoners rescued form Pawiak meet after years in Israel with Leon Wanat, the author of "Behind the Pawiak's Walls"; first on the right in the second row stands Leon Kopelman
There was also one man who was in charge of the bath house, since at Pawiak there were no regular washing basins. Once a week we would be allowed into the bath house. Some Jews were also working in the carpenter's shop where, as it turned out later, they were digging a tunnel in order to get to the city sewers.
translated by: Małgorzata Kwiatkowska
born April 26, 1924 in Warsaw
survived from the Warsaw Ghetto
volunteer soldier of "Zoska" battalion
Home Army union "Radoslaw"
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