Lebovics (Balter), Paula (Pessa)
Ostrowiec (Poland), Auschwitz
Mrs. Paula Lebovics, nee, Pessa Balter, had a happy early childhood. Born in September 1933, she did not know at the age of five that a war had started, one that would destroy her life as she knew it. She lived in a religious home; her parents worked in her grandfather’s shoe store in Ostrowiec, Poland until 1940 when soldiers came and told her family that their part of the city was not for Jews. Her family was banished to a single room in the open ghetto.
Her brother Herschel rapidly schooled himself in survival and prepared a hole under a chicken coop, where he hid his family and whomever else could crowd in, a total of 40, on days when there was to be a “selection.” Two sisters, ages 16 and 18 declined to join them because they had papers that assured them they could work in safety. They were never heard from again. Pessa was hidden in an attic during the day and allowed out to see her parents only at night. She quickly learned survival lessons from her brother, chief among these lessons to appear as invisible as possible. When her brother told her it was too dangerous to stay, she hid in an abandoned brick factory then moved from place to place. She suffered gnawing hunger and numbing cold.
Eventually she was captured by Ukrainian soldiers and taken to the Germans. At one point, Pessa recalls being told to wash the floor of a large hall at a Hitler Youth camp. Given only a small pail, half filled with water, the impossibility of the task seemed to symbolize her hopelessness.
At the age of 10, she was herded onto a cattle car, packed with other unfortunates and taken to Auschwitz. The women were cast into a room and subjected to searches. Then she was tattooed. She survived on starvation rations of watery gruel and black bread, and singing, to bolster the spirits of her fellow prisoners. When Mengele, came to select subjects for his infamous experiments, she practiced her skills at being invisible. Pessa heard that her brother was across the electrified fence and found him. When they found that their mother was gravely ill, he passed food for her across that fence to Pessa. Others, unsuccessful at negotiating the fence were seen hanging on it every morning, electrocuted, dead.
Then, one day, all the adults were marched out of the camp, a death march. Left with the younger children, Pessa’s only food for 10 days was a moldy bit of bread she had found. Allied bombs were starting to fall and knocked out the powerhouse. Along with others, she returned to the camp and in an abandoned storeroom she put on as many clothes as she could manage to protect herself against the winter cold. Darkness found her scrambling through a mound of mismatched shoes and she was so proud of herself to find two felt boots. They were not a pair, and one was much too large, but as she had nothing, then found something, for a moment she considered herself rich.
Finally on January 27, 1945, Russian soldiers opened the gate. Death was still prevalent throughout the camp as so many succumbed to dysentery. She once again found her mother. They registered with the Red Cross and then went to their home town. When they found her grandfather’s building, the caretaker who had taken over the living quarters greeted them with the question: “Jew, they didn’t kill you?”
Her brother Herschel once again came to the rescue and got them to a displaced persons camp in Germany. There, she enrolled in Hebrew school, the first real school she ever attended, at age 12. Herschel eventually emigrated to Australia in 1950 but Pessa and her mother were not wanted there. They were able to come to the United States, arriving in Detroit on March 1, 1952. At the age of 18, she was able to begin life anew. She became Paula (better name for America) and married in 1957.
Today, Mrs. Lebovics has a son and a daughter. She is now widowed. Mrs. Lebovics’ testimony is an inspiration to all who know her story.