Lesko (Poland), Przemysl, Krakow
Helena was sixty-six when she was interviewed, a long forty-four years after the Holocaust. Her memories of her family life were dear, especially when she spoke about her father, Joseph Manaster, whom she remembered as being very smart, kind and religious. She described her father as having a long full beard and her mother as wearing a shaitel.
Religion was an important part of their daily lives and, although they were very wealthy and sent their children to private schools, the children led, as Helena described, a “sheltered life.” It embarrassed her to attend school on Saturday and, in order to honor her parents and their beliefs, instead of taking notes, she would try her best to memorize all the professor’s teachings.
In September of 1939, the Germans entered her town and the Jews, including her family, were “thrown out.” They kept their religion a secret and lived peacefully under the Russians until June, 1941 when the war broke out. The persecutions began within a week and her family was forced to live in a basement bunker. Jews could no longer work nor even walk on the sidewalk and food was rationed, especially for the Jews.
At some future point, Helena married a medical school student who had the Germans’ permission to fight thyphus. She became his nurse/”assistant” and his mother moved in with them. The Germans were pleasant to them because of their status, and, as medical people, they were even paid, mostly in potatoes.
In 1942 the Gestapo came, took everything and locked them up. She had a cold at that time, but said she was very ill and contagious. They feared typhoid and left.
Helena remembered that the Germans came back to each town after the Gestapo exterminations and used chemicals to get rid of the bodies.
On June 10th, she and her husband hid in a town called Przemysl. They lived in a ghetto with approximately thirty thousand other Jews. People were constantly rounded up for the gas chambers, especially the mothers and young children. The able men and boys left to work on the pipe lines and, because the Germans needed doctors, their lives were spared once again.
One of the reasons that she escaped extermination, time and time again, was because she spoke Polish without an accent and she was not the “stereotypical Jew.” She explained that she was quiet, very polite and avoided confrontation.
When the pipeline was finished, the problem arose as what to do with the Jewish workers. They were locked up and told that the Germans were on the way to kill them. But, because of her husband’s status, he had a key and, once again, they escaped, walking for days in deep snow surviving the freezing temperatures. When they would come to a small village, they would find a home. Sometimes they were able to stay for a few hours, long enough to warm themselves.
They took several train rides, back and forth to Przemysl, all the while being tracked by police and dogs. They went to Krakow and not one person suspected they were Jews. Her husband found some old medical school friends who risked their lives to hide them. At this point, Helena became pregnant and the women begged her to abort. She refused saying that no one would believe that a Jew was pregnant.
In the summer of 1943, she stayed in a monastery and lived there until she delivered her son in October. The nuns baptized the baby and Helena said she was very hurt but said nothing. They gave her a small girl to take care of her baby. Her husband was in Krakow all this time, working for the underground. During this period she had two or three very close calls but survived again by not showing any fear.
One day, she found a mezuzah on her door that someone had left to warn her that she was found out and should leave, which she did, taking only her baby and leaving the small orphan girl behind. She had been there for seven months.
She walked all the way to Krakow, nursing her infant, while she was starving. At this point, she searched for her family, but could find no one. She went from home to home, even staying with the wife of a Gestapo agent who came home unexpectedly one night. His wife hid Helena and her baby by covering their heads with blankets. Along the way, she ran into Isaac B. Singer’s brother who quoted a saying that was the Polish chant, “Beat a Jew.” She said that the Poles were always anti-Semitic.
After the war, she stayed in Poland because her husband was not ready to leave. Finally in 1968, when her third child was twelve, they all left for Vienna and then to the US. Her sister, who had survived and was in Palestine, got them visas.
She settled in Chicago in 1969 and stayed there until the day after this interview after which she moved to Israel to be with one of her sons.
Interviewer: Johnathan Fishbane
Date: December 9, 1983
Length: 1 hr., 31 min.
Format: Video Recording