Lessons in Life


Shomrei Emunah has a library of Holocaust books, donated by a Holocaust survivor, and from time to time I read one. Alone in the Forest, by Mala Kacenberg, is part of a series put out by CIS Publishers during the 1990s called “The Holocaust Diaries.” Before I tell you a little of this riveting story, I want to dispel the fallacy that if you’ve read one Holocaust book you know the whole story. This is totally wrong, as each autobiography of someone who went through the trauma of World War II and came out alive is unique. This is true because, first of all, each person survived by a different set of miracles. Second, the lessons they learned and passed on to us are unique to their experiences and to their personalities. You can read such a book as an adventure story, with escape from near death on every page, or you can look deeper and take lessons for your own life.

The author of Alone in the Forest was never in a concentration camp and, in fact, did not even hear that term until after the war. Her story is a less familiar one. Mala was a young girl, all alone, who had to survive by her wits in the forest, accompanied only by her cat, Malach, who follows her throughout the book and was more than once her confidant and savior. She learns to live among Polish peasants under various guises. With extraordinary courage and audacity, she passes herself off as a threadbare Polish girl, a slightly deranged peasant and vagabond, and thus manages to secure food and lodging. At one point, she lives in the home of a half-blind, old village woman by claiming to be the old woman’s long-lost sister’s granddaughter.

Of course, Mala is never secure and is constantly one step ahead of being caught. Often, she has to find temporary refuge, and for a long time, she literally lives alone in the forest. She meets all kinds of people, some very kind and others evil to their core. She is careful not to arouse suspicion that she is a Jewish girl, but it is very close at times. After several years of wandering, Mala hears of a way out of the forest. She decides to sign up for a German labor program for young Poles and is shipped off to Germany. How she does this without any documents to prove she is a good Catholic girl from a Polish family will be explained later. It is all very touch-and-go, with close call after close call. She is even denounced as a Jew by a Polish girl from her Polish public school and is able to turn the tables and somehow convince the Nazis that the Polish anti-Semite is possibly the Jew. Remember, she is barely a teenager, a once naïve little girl from a shtetl, who remains true to her Jewishness and frumkeit to the small extent that she can. She thinks quickly, takes chances, and lies like a pro.

The chapters that deal with her time as a laborer for Germans, living with other Polish girls, gives a glimpse into the “plight” of the Polish gentiles under the Germans. She is constantly arousing the Poles’ suspicion because she is so much smarter than they are, and she finds it hard to be a stupid, ignorant, lazy, prejudiced laborer. She has to put on an act and is always afraid of being denounced by the other Poles.

The only times she is actually shot at and comes close to death are not in Germany and not in the forest but after the war, when she temporarily returns to Poland. Her post-war experiences are in some ways, miraculous too.

Let me now skip to the very end of the book, where you see a photo taken in 1994 of Mala and her husband. They look like any frum older couple. He is wearing a hat and has a beard, and she is dressed as any very frum grandmother would dress for a simcha. Here, in her words, are the last paragraphs in the book:

Why did I, of all people, deserve my own guardian angel? I do not know. Certainly, I was no more deserving than countless thousands of others who perished. Perhaps it was in the merit of my parents or one of my worthy ancestors, whose names and lives are perpetuated through my children and grandchildren. Who can fathom the ways of Hashem? Certainly, not I.

Nevertheless, no matter in whose merit I was granted this Divine shield, I do not cease to praise and thank Hashem for His infinite kindness. Every time I see my children and grandchildren, all of them living embodiments of the holy Torah, I want to call out to my dear parents in Gan Eden , “Look! These are your grandchildren! Be proud, because your lifelong devotion to the Torah and your selfless love for your children are reflected in the shining faces of your grandchildren. Through them and your future generations, you will continue to live forever.”

Mala could be any one of our local Holocaust survivors, whose stories are not known to us. Each of them has a story of miracles and, amazingly, after the war, they reverted to “normal” lives. Their great-grandchildren today may have no idea what Zaidy and Bubby went through and how they managed to live at a time when being a Jew was equivalent to being a cockroach. Let us treasure them and learn from them how to survive when survival is close to impossible.

Now to a few vignettes from the book and what we can see and learn from them:

“Early in the morning of erev Rosh Hashanah, 1942, my father was saying Selichos. I was preparing to sneak out of the house in order to beg for food (outside the ghetto). My mother called to me with tears in her eyes, ‘Go my daughter, go, and may Hashem help and protect you.’ When I was some distance away, I noticed troops encircling Tarnogrod. I was quite successful, managing to get potatoes, bread, and eggs. With the heavy sack on my shoulder, Malach, my cat, and I set out on the journey back. From far, I recognized Mr. Guziek, our nice Christian neighbor. He quietly told me that my parents and sisters had been rounded up and taken to the market place. They were informed that they would go to a much better place where the men would have good jobs and their families would receive larger rations. My parents had given my personal belongings to Mr. Guziek.”

This was the last time Mala, barely a teenager, saw her parents. But at this point she still did not “get it.” She went back to the ghetto to feed her feeble grandfather, who was too old to be deported. She stayed in the ghetto for a while and barely escaped with her life when the Germans destroyed it completely on November 1, 1942. She ran out in her nightgown without shoes on her feet and nothing at all to sustain her. She made it to the forest and, as far as she knew, was the only survivor of Tarnogrod.

“I sat down for a while and I instinctively decided to walk towards Korchow, the nearest place.” The first door she knocked on was opened by an unfriendly Polish woman, but she learned from her that next door lived a 90-year-old woman, and she learned the woman’s name. “She lives alone and will only be too pleased to have a little chat with you and offer you a little food,” the Polish woman told her.

Mala went next door and the old lady asked her if she was Marysia, her dead sister’s granddaughter. “Yes, I am Marysia, and I was sent here to help you. I am strong and I like to look after older people. I love you Auntie,” she said, feeling guilty for lying. In short, the old woman embraced her and gave her clothing and food, and Mala stayed there for a while. Then Mala, with great foresight, asked her auntie to introduce her to all the neighbors, so that no one would suspect anything.

Ask yourself, ask your grandchildren, what they would have done if they were the last survivor and had no place to go and nothing to wear or eat. Would any of us be as intuitive as this frum little girl who had just seen her father saying Selichos and without skipping a beat was now was pretending to be a Polish gentile?

She decided to leave the old lady after a few days, because she was afraid the Germans would not be as gullible. Another close call: Mala was sitting in the forest and realized that Malach had disappeared; she found her crouching under a tree trunk. At that moment, she heard German soldiers approaching and crouched down with her cat under the same tree trunk. The Nazis were drunk and celebrating their murderous adventures and the presents they would bring to their wives.

The Nazis went away, leaving some biscuits wrapped up in a bag: “I ate them,” says Mala. “Thank you Hashem for leaving me such good food. I wished that I had a siddur or Tehilim; then I could say a proper prayer.” Then she heard gunfire. She had come upon a group of partisans who killed the Germans who had just been very close to her. She approached the partisans, who were Jewish boys and girls wearing the uniforms of dead Nazis. Mala wished she could join the partisans and kill Germans. The leader told her they had no illusions that they would survive the war but they wanted to kill as many Germans as they could before they died. She was too young and small to join them. “I said goodbye to them and disappeared into the forest.”

Days later, she came upon five Jewish men from her town who had somehow escaped. “They offered me some food. They told me that they gave money to a Polish woman who brought them food and drink. They invited me to join their little group.” But Mala was a frum little girl, barely a teenager, and did not want to live with five men. Shortly after she left, the Polish woman brought the Nazis, who shot the men. She had escaped just in the nick of time. This was only one of many times she wisely decided not to join any group and to stay alone.

Would you, a sheltered little girl, have preferred company, or would you have intuited that it is more dangerous to be in a group than to hide alone?

At a later point, Mala heard about a labor exchange in Bilgoraj, but had no idea how to get there and how to find it. A peasant passed on his wagon and offered her a ride, gave her some bread and cheese, and took her all the way to her destination, the labor exchange. It happened to be the very day that the Nazis massacred the Jewish population of Bilgoraj. Had she not been in the wagon of a gentile, she may have been shot too.

Now she had a dilemma. She had no papers of any kind. She sat down next to a girl, who immediately got up and moved. She realized that, having lived in the forest, she probably didn’t smell too good. A girl told her, “Have your papers ready, you are next in line.”

Mala realized that, to get to Germany, she would have to outwit them. She noticed a girl who looked older than the others, and thought she looked Jewish. In short she followed her into the toilet and shoved into the same stall and spoke to the other girl in Yiddish. “I quickly explained my predicament and asked her for advice.” The other girl was also a lone survivor of Janow and had also lived in the forest. She also had no papers, but she had a plan: “I am going to tell them that I come from Pikule, a little village near Janow where the Polish army had held out in the forest after the occupation. The Germans punished the whole village for not betraying them. I am going to tell the police that I was in Janow, and that the entire town of Pikule was burned to the ground while I was away, and that is why I have no papers.” They entered the interrogation room together and the older girl did all the talking and answered all the questions correctly about their town, etc.

The police officers took pity on the two Polish orphans and said they would try to help them out. They were taken with the other Poles to another town and not asked for papers. Miraculously, the officers accepted at face value the girls’ lie that they had no valid documents because their little village had been burned to the ground by the Nazis. The two were then asked for their names, and identification papers were made up for them. Mala quickly gave the name of a classmate, Stephania Iwkiewica. Unfortunately, when they got to the next big city, someone recognized her new friend, and she was led away.

Now, we come to another very close call. At this point, Mala had cleaned herself up and tidied her hair. A Polish girl decided that Mala looked Jewish and told a policeman, who was too busy to deal with it at that moment and did not take her away for interrogation. Mala immediately went out of the room and rearranged her hair to look more slovenly and less groomed (signs of a non-Jew). She also wisely walked up to the policeman and talked to him. She asked him permission to go to the toilet. 

On November 13, 1942, the train carrying the Poles to Germany left Lublin. Mala fell asleep and when she opened her eyes, she saw Zosia, a Polish girl from her school. She and Zosia had a run in in the past, and she was no friend. This was a very dangerous happening. To get to the point, Zosia said to her in a voice that others could hear, “Give me your fur-lined coat, or I will tell the police officer that you are a Zydowka, a Jew.” Immediately, everyone turned to her and the police officer came over.

What would you do? Mala gave the policeman a smile and she spat at Zosia, calling her warjatka, crazy. Remember, she had a valid identity card, not a forgery, and this gave her confidence. So she acted like a Pole: “I stood up and began to use the most profane expressions, calling Zosia every degrading name I could bring to mind. When the train stopped at the next station, the guard took the two girls to the Gestapo office. “I smiled broadly and greeted the guard with a cheery good morning,” Mala writes.

Was ist dein Namen, Maddhen (what is your name)?” Mala understood him, of course, but as a Pole, she pretended not to understand a word. She just smiled. The guard asked her in Polish what she had to say to Zosia’s claim that she was Jewish.

“I gave Zosia an antagonistic look. ‘She must be crazy,’ I retorted. Either that or she is Jewish herself. She told me on the train that if I didn’t give her my coat, she would tell you that I was Jewish, that warjatka.”

The Gestapo man then asked Zosia if it was true, and she became too frightened to answer. Mala appeared very relaxed, and Zosia appeared more and more nervous. Then the soldier asked Mala to recite the daily prayer that all Christian children had to say, while the Jewish children stood silently. Of course, Mala remembered the prayer that she had heard every day for many years and answered all the questions about the Catholic religion. They still did not completely believe her and asked her to sing a number of Polish songs. The Polish national anthem says, “Poland has not perished yet, as long as I am alive, but Mala reminded her interrogator that Poland had already perished. This made the Nazis laugh. The interrogation continued for a while longer, but in the end, the Nazis accused Zosia of being the Jew, not her. They let Mala go and kept Zosia. Zosia never came back.

Through her quick thinking and her faultless acting as though she did not understand German even when the Germans were contemplating killing her, Mala extricated herself from certain death.

In the interests of space, I will skip over most of what happened when she was an unpaid laborer in Germany. She worked for a German couple who owned a hotel full of soldiers. She pretended not to know a word of German in the beginning, but was a “quick learner” and could converse in German after a while. This aroused suspicion. Another problem was that she was the only one who did not get mail. She somehow got a Polish girl to give her the name of some people who wrote to her, sort of like pen pals. The main thing was that she got mail.

She had many more adventures in the two-and-a-half years that she worked in Germany. At the end of the war, two things happened: A German couple who had no children, offered to adopt her, but she politely declined. All of the other workers were stealing valuables from their masters to take back to Poland. Mala had the foresight to ask her employers to watch her as she packed, and she showed them that she took not one item of theirs. This caused her employer to give her a letter that she was a good worker and an honest person and that everything in the suitcase belonged to her. Because of this, she was the only passenger who got to keep her luggage. All the other Poles had to check their valises, and which were put onto the last car of the train; it was eventually disconnected, so that they got nothing. Mala did have a lot of dresses that were made for her by a kind seamstress who liked her. These dresses later enabled her to survive in Poland.

Before she left Germany, Mala visited a camp of Holocaust survivors and was totally surprised by what she saw. She had known nothing of the concentration camps. She was surprised by their condition, and they did not talk to her because they could not believe she was really a Jewish girl. She was not in the least malnourished and had normal clothing. The rejected her because they were so sick.

One last story of how she almost died. She was in a DP Camp near Munich. A group of talented survivors decided to put on a show to entertain the survivors. Mala was not chosen because her singing voice wasn’t good enough, but went as a spectator. On the way back from Munich, the people who were in the show went in one truck, and the others in another truck. When they reached their camp at Fuhrenwald, they found out that the other truck had overturned in a ditch because the driver was drunk. All the people in the performance were dead.

“We were all speechless, and we cried for a very long time. It was difficult for us to believe that, after surviving so many years of torture and starvation in concentration camps, those youngsters died in freedom. For the first time, I would understand why Hashem had chosen not to give me a good voice.”

Mala would have gone to Israel or the United States, but the first country to let her immigrate was Great Britain. There, she actually met up with some great uncles and distant cousins and, after a few years, one of them made a shidduch for her with a survivor from her town, Tarnogrod. They rebuilt their lives in London, having five children and many grandchildren. If you saw her, you would never imagine how skillfully she lied her way through the war. She was literally in the lion’s den and she came out alive, and, what is just as amazing, as full of her religious faith as before.

We can all learn so much from such people. Think about it.

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