Prior to World War Two, seven-year-old Krystyna and her four-year-old brother Pawelek led a happy life with their parents Jerzy and Peppa Chiger in Lvov. The City had the third largest Jewish community in Poland and was known as both a cultural and industrial center.
But when the Nazis stormed into the country and took control of Lvov, in June, 1941, extremely harsh anti-Jewish measures were immediately put into action. During the summer, thousands of Lvov Jews were killed during a series of massacres. By December, 1941, the Nazis forced the city's 150,000 Jews into the newly established ghetto and brutality accelerated with murder, violence and terror.
Raped by Nazis in the streets of Lvov
The Nazis enacted their usual pattern of confiscation of Jewish property, personal humiliations and deprivations of every sort, forced labor, and deportation to KZ camps. The Ghetto's last few thousand inhabitants were removed in June 1943 after the rest had been deported to extermination in death camp Belzec.
The Lvov Ghetto 1942
But the Chiger family miraculously managed to escape the liquidation of the ghetto by hiding in stench and darkness in the sewage-filled sewers of Lvov for 14 months amid rats, filth, and the constant pounding of rushing water. When heavy rain fell, the water nearly reached the ceiling of the sewer and Krystyna and Pawelek's parents had to hold their children above the waterline so they could breathe. They had to pick off each day's lice and cope with dysentery.
The Chiger family found an unlikely savior in a seemingly ordinary Polish sewer worker, Leopold Socha, a former black-marketeer who brought them food every day, always by different manholes so as not to arouse suspicion. He also brought them a Jewish prayer book which he had found in the now deserted ghetto.
For months the Chiger family faced the constant danger of discovery but they survived in the sewer hide-out until liberation. On the day of the German surrender Leopold Socha brought those in hiding vodka to celebrate.
A few years after the war, on February 6, 1947, Krystyna was interviewed by Magistrate Maria Holender. The Anti-Defamation League ADL tells her story:
Daddy found out that there would be a liquidation of the Ghetto, we hid in the cellar. We usually went there in the afternoon when Mommy would come back from work. I was 7 years old then and I knew about everything.
Later we headed for the sewer. It was very wet and dark. I was very scared and I was shaking, but I tried to be calm and only asked Daddy if we still had far to go. There were stones with yellow worms crawling all over. We put all our things over the stones and sat on top of them. It was awful there. Water seeped from the walls and it smelled bad. I saw large, red rats which ran by us just like chickens. At first I was very afraid, but later I got used to it. My little brother, Pawelek, was not scared at all.
I lay on Mommy's knees and Pawelek was on Daddy's. This lasted five weeks. We couldn't move or get up. There were 20 other people with us. Every day, from the first day, the Polish sewer workers brought us food: black bread and margarine. They were very nice to us.
Because they were afraid that someone might notice them, they always came into the sewers through different sewer covers.
We had a carbide lamp which was lit all the time. It hung from a hook. Daddy brought us water in a jug which he carried in his teeth because he had to walk very stooped. I was not allowed to talk loudly; I only whispered into Mommy's ear. I dreamt that the war would end so that we could go out into the world. I missed the sunshine, the air and the flowers. Once, I asked our sewer workers for some field flowers. I wanted to see our dog, but I didn't tell Mommy because she had so many other worries.
After five weeks, other sewer workers found our hiding place. We had to run away. We ran through the main pipe, straight ahead, and we didn't know where we were going. Suddenly, we saw our sewer workers. They were very surprised and asked us where we were going. Daddy told them everything. Then they led us to a side pipe and told us to stay there overnight. In the morning, they led us farther in. While walking, I felt much better. I did not have to sit any more. I walked barefoot in a summer dress. I was shaking from the cold but I felt happy. I got a pin in my foot but I took it out myself because I didn't want to delay the others. We finally reached a cement pipe and we stayed there the whole day. It was so cold there that we couldn't stand it. There was also no place to sleep. The next day our friends led us away again. By then we were only 11 people. The others had died.
The rats ate our bread. When Daddy frightened them with a stick, they ran away. Pawelek fed the rats as if they were pets. The rats came very close and squeaked, but Pawelek wasn't scared. One lady cooked soup and coffee and Mommy divided it among us so that I was not hungry. Pawelek got used to everything and he no longer cried. One lady gave birth to a child. They covered this child with a washbasin. It suffocated and was thrown into the Poltwa.
I heard how cars drove above us. I heard people's voices and children playing and laughing. I thought how happy I would be if I could play like them. I got very sick with measles. Then Pawelek got it from me. One sewer worker brought him eggs in his teeth. He had to crawl to come to us.
We lived like this for 14 months. Our sewer workers helped us all the time. When we ran out of money they brought us food for nothing.
Towards the end of our hiding, I heard the whistles of sirens and the noise of cannons. I was afraid but I knew that our liberators, the Russians, were near. One day we heard a strong knocking on the sewer grates. These were our sewer workers who told us that we were free. For a few minutes we walked through the pipe, then we pulled away the sewer cover and our sewer workers pulled us up on the surface of the earth. We no longer looked like children. People felt sorry for us and one lady bought us gooseberries. I was so happy when I saw the sun, flowers and people. But Pawelek cried a lot. He wanted to go back to the sewer because he wasn't used to the light and he was afraid of people.
In Nazi-occupied Europe, there were about 1.6 million Jewish children. By 1945, about 1.5 million had been killed - the Nazis considered the annihilation of Jewish children to be of primary importance.
Lest we forget. The Holocaust - the charred skeletons, the diabolic experiments, the death camps, the mass graves, the smoke from the chimneys. And the story of the Chiger family - Krystyna, Pawelek and their parents Jerzy and Peppa Chiger. A story that reminds us that the human spirit is far sturdier than most of us can fathom.
Remember the evil, but do not forget the good.
In the Sewers of Lvov: A Heroic Story of Survival from the Holocaust by Robert Marshall. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.
The Holocaust. The Jewish Tragedy by Sir Martin Gilbert
ADL, Anti-Defamation League
www.auschwitz.dk www.oskarschindler.com www.shoah.dk
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