THIS ( PRAYER­FUL) LIFE ALICE STERN­HELL

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

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.

this­life@ theaus­tralian. com. au For This Life guide­lines, go to www. theaus­tralian. com. au/ life­style.

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