THIS ( PRAYERFUL) LIFE ALICE STERNHELL
AT nine I was a diehard atheist, having acquired my parents’ agnostic- atheistic convictions. It was September 1942 and I was about to be liquidated with the rest of my family in an Aktion ( deportation) of which most people in Poland’s Czestochowa Ghetto had an inkling. My mother was a dentist, and the heroic and saintly wife of one of her colleagues saved my life.
When this woman became aware of what was about to happen, she decided, at unbelievable personal risk, to rescue me.
She walked into the ghetto ( it was at that stage an open ghetto; Christian Poles could come and go) and spoke to my parents. They grabbed the chance to save one of their children; my sister, being older, needed a kennkarte, an identity card. My saviour came armed with a birth certificate of a deceased child my age, took my hand and we walked out of the doomed place. We arrived at her home without incident. I was told my new name and taught Christian prayers.
The following day we left Czestochowa, where it would have been dangerous for me to remain, as someone might have recognised me. My rescuer decided to take me to Krakow and place me with her parents. With me clutching her hand, we started walking from the station to her parents’ place. We were soon stopped by a man ( Gestapo?) who declared that my saviour looked Jewish and he was taking us to the police station. At the police station entrance the man took her papers, which were in perfect order, and looked through them. He then shone a torch in my face and said: ‘‘ The child looks Jewish, too.’’ I have been trying to recollect what he looked like. Did he wear a uniform? If so, what type? Did he speak Polish well? All I can remember is knowing I was in mortal danger and I needed to behave above suspicion. It did not occur to me to give up, burst into tears and thereby commit suicide.
I thought fast: a Polish child told that she looked Jewish would laugh, so I smiled sweetly and tried to look amused. He then told me to say my prayers. I recited Our Father and started on Hail Mary when he stopped me and let us go. I had many more close shaves, but this was probably the most dramatic.
I wish I could say that I had an epiphany and became a devout Catholic ( or Jew, or Muslim for that matter); a religieuse. But even at that tender age I was a realist and simply thanked my luck for our escape. At 75, I still have not changed my mind.
PS: According to the Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust ( Macmillan Publishing, 1990) between September 22 and October 8, 1942, 39,000 Jews were sent from Czestochowa to the Treblinka extermination camp. My parents and sister were among them.
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