Paula Goldhar

Goldhar thumbnail Final

Born: Kielce, Poland, 1924

Wartime experience: ghetto and camp

Writing Partner: Chana LeBowitz

Paula Goldhar (née Lwowski) was born in Kielce, Poland, in 1924 and was the youngest of eight children. Paula’s family lived in Lodz for several years before World War II started and until early 1940.

Then her family moved to Stopnica, which was soon turned into an open ghetto. In 1942, Paula and three of her siblings were deported to the Skarżysko-Kamienna forced labour camp, and in 1944, Paula and her two surviving siblings were sent to the Częstochowa forced labour camp. Paula and her sister Rivcha were liberated by the Soviet army on January 16, 1945, and were then reunited with their brother Yechezkel. They stayed in the city of Częstochowa for a year and a half, but after a pogrom in the nearby city of Kielce, they fled the area and lived in two displaced persons camps in Germany. Paula obtained false papers showing her age to be seventeen rather than twenty-one so that she would be allowed to enter Canada under its strict postwar immigration policies. She immigrated to Canada in October 1947 and lived with her aunt and uncle in Toronto. Paula married her husband, Yitzchak, in 1950, and together they built a family.

Holiday Memories

Lodz was a huge city with some predominantly Jewish districts. Where we lived, it was all Jewish. Life in Lodz was wonderful. My father and mother said, “It’s such a Yiddishe city.” There were Jewish butchers and bakers, and we would see people going to and from shul, synagogue. On Shabbos, the Sabbath, all the businesses were closed.

My brothers all learned in the yeshivos, religious schools. In my family, I was the only schoolgirl. Jewish girls went to public school because there were no Jewish day schools in Europe before the war. But in Lodz, the Jewish kids had their own public schools. I went to school six days a week — Monday to Friday and Sundays too. The gentile kids had school on Saturdays. I was in school from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. with two breaks in the middle. At 1:00 p.m. I would come home and we would have dinner. Around 1:30 p.m. I would sit down to do homework. I was a good student. I didn’t have much room to do my homework in our small apartment, but in the kitchen there was a small table next to the stove where my mother chopped and prepared things. Attached to that table was a small board that could be pulled out, and that was my place to do homework. Then at 5:00 p.m. I would meet up with some friends and we would go together to Bais Yaakov, an Orthodox Jewish girls’ school, until 7:00 p.m.

Friday at noon, all the machines were pushed to the side and the merchandise was piled up and covered with white sheets. Then my mother would put a white tablecloth on the table, and then the candlesticks. My mother would be busy cooking and preparing all day long. My sisters also helped in the kitchen, cooking and baking. When I came home from school on Fridays, there were big pans of cakes and challahs, braided egg bread, coming out from that little kitchen, as well as fish and a cholent, a slow-cooking stew.

For Shabbos and yontif, Jewish festivals, my father always made his own wine from raisins. He would put raisins and sugar into big jugs and cover them with lids that had holes in them. He would set the jugs to ferment on the wide sill between the window and the storm window.

Shabbos at home was wonderful. My father and four brothers would sing beautiful zemiros, songs. We would sit at the Shabbos table, singing for two hours on Friday night and on Shabbos day as well. On Shabbos morning, my father would go with my four brothers to the shtiebel, the small shul, and the girls would go to the Bais Yaakov to daven, to pray.

On Shabbos afternoons in the summer, the boys would go back to the shtiebel as soon as we finished eating. The girls would go to Bnos, an Orthodox cultural and educational program. I went to Basya, which was like Bnos but for younger girls. We would also go to the park to talk.

By late Shabbos afternoon, my mother would be preparing challah, herring and eggs for shalosh seudas, the third meal customarily eaten on Shabbos. When my brothers would come home with their friends for the meal, they would knock on the door, and if I was the one who opened it, my brothers’ friends would put their heads down because a chassidishe bochur, a Hasidic boy, was not supposed to look at a girl.

I have wonderful memories of all the holidays....

On Sukkos, my father built a sukkah, a temporary hut. He was always the big boss among his crowd. He would take in a few neighbours and they would eat in the sukkah, just the men. The women would light the candles in the sukkah but didn’t eat in there. Right after candle-lighting, some of my girlfriends from the courtyard and I would sit in our sukkah, watching the candles and singing. We had to make sure that the wind coming through the s’chach, the roof made from branches, would not blow out the candles. This task was considered an honour.

On Simchas Torah, we would go wild. We girls would go up to the Bais Yaakov building and dance and dance. Then we would dance in the street all the way home. And nobody bothered us. On Chanukah, my mother would make latkes every night, my father would light the candles and we would sing “Maoz Tzur together, all eight of us. On Purim, some women in our apartment building did not go to the shul to listen to the Megilla, the Scroll of Esther, being read. More than half of the Jewish people living around us were not religious at all. So, my mother would invite all those ladies to come over. She would put out a tablecloth and set down lots of chairs and cookies and a torte. Then my brother Yechezkel would come home from shul with a Megilla and read it for the ladies. I knew the whole Megilla with the niggun, tune, by heart from hearing my brother practising.

The Winds of War

In Lodz, we didn’t feel antisemitism until close to the war; we hadn’t felt it in 1933, when Hitler came to power. But by 1938, after Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, it felt as though the Poles had been influenced by Hitler to harass the Jews. The Polish shkutzim, gentiles, threw stones at us Jewish girls. We were afraid to wear our Bais Yaakov clothes out in the street. But they could tell we were Jewish anyway. One of my brother’s friends was beaten up and died. My brothers were afraid to go out in the evening. Sometimes they would still go to the bais midrash, the study hall, to learn or go to a shiur, a religious class. But eventually my mother stopped letting them go. It was not safe.

We knew everything that was going on in Germany from the newspapers. Not instantly, but a day later. There was a Yiddish newspaper called the Haynt (Today) that my father read. He was always sitting with a sefer, a holy book, in his hand, but he also read the Haynt. He was always tuned into the news and the happenings. My brother used to read the paper aloud for everybody if he found a good article. At that time, a lot of German Jews were running away from Germany, and many came to Lodz. They thought that the persecution was only going to happen in Germany and that the rest of us were safe. They didn’t expect that there would be a war.

There was a family that fled Germany and came to live in our apartment building. The wife would dress up beautifully and wore a little hat, and she always wore white gloves. The German Jews were very elegant. This lady spoke German, not Yiddish. But Yiddish and German are very close. She told us how awful life was in Germany and what was happening there. The stories were going around. In a household full of adults, I heard and absorbed all of that. I remember that lady, how pretty she was and her beautiful dress. This family was educated; they were different from us. My parents were not educated. My brothers were educated only in the yeshiva, and they didn’t speak Polish well. There were Jews in Poland who were born there and died there and never learned the Polish language because they lived only among other Jews.

So we heard what was going on in Germany, but in Poland it was still not bad. My father and my mother were worried nonetheless. My mother walked around after she spoke with this German neighbour, saying, “Oh, my God, oh, my God, what is happening? I hope we will be safe.” She said, “Well, let them [the German Jews] all leave Germany and go to other countries. Why are they staying there if things are so bad?” Nobody knew that there was going to be a war.

But as time went on, the winds of war could be felt. We heard things. First, Hitler went into Austria and incorporated it into Greater Germany. The Austrian people were happy; they threw flowers at the soldiers. Then we heard that Hitler took on Czechoslovakia. And there was Chamberlain; the newspapers made fun of him. I remember there was a cartoon in the Haynt newspaper — Chamberlain with an umbrella. They made fun of him because he believed what Hitler was saying. He came back to England and said, “Peace in our time.” I remember those words. He made a pact with Hitler and there was going to be peace.

Two weeks before the war broke out, my brother Alter got married in Pacanów, which was close to Stopnica. My parents couldn’t take eight children to a wedding out of town, so they compromised and took four of us — Miriam, Alter, Yechezkel and Avraham. My mother and father bought beautiful clothes for everyone, and in the middle of August, they went to the wedding.

Toiba, Rivcha, Leibel and I stayed in Lodz. We were not children anymore. I was fourteen, and the siblings who stayed home with me were sixteen, twenty and twenty-two. We didn’t know that Hitler was going to attack Poland. That was a surprise. My parents had gone to this big beautiful wedding not at all thinking that a war was going to break out.

On Friday, September 1, we were at home alone, with our parents away. My older sister lit the candles at the beginning of Shabbos. Then someone in the apartment building who had a radio came running down to the courtyard, crying, “The war has started! The war has started!”

And then everything turned upside down.

Sometimes we talked while on the bunks: “Maybe a miracle will happen and we’ll come home and our parents will be waiting for us with open arms! They’ll be so happy that we survived.” That’s how we talked among ourselves. We were daydreaming that someone would be happy if we survived. And that helped get us through.

Holding On

Between the day and night shifts, the barracks had to be empty. If someone stayed behind in the barracks and could not go to work, we never saw them again.

We were in the Skarżysko-Kamienna camp maybe three months when we were struck with a typhus epidemic. Typhus is a horrible disease that comes with a very high fever. Of course, whoever got a fever couldn’t get up to go to work. One day, I, too, couldn’t get up to go to work. So I told the kapo, “I’m sick. I have to go to the hospital.” She sent me to the “hospital,” which was just another barracks with bunks for isolation. Survival was pure luck. They didn’t give us any food or water. They just left people lying there until they either got better or died. Girls were dying all around me. I knew they were dead; I touched cold hands, cold feet. I sometimes opened my eyes and saw two orderlies taking out a girl who had died. Outside of each barracks there was a wooden box with dead bodies in it. In the beginning, we looked away, but later on we got used to it. It just became a part of our lives.

I was very lucky that I had my sister with me. Rivcha had had typhus as a child, and it was unlikely she would get it again. I was lying on a bunk and my sister handed me water every day. I was delirious. I don’t remember anything from that time. I often woke up soaked. The boards were wet. I must have spilled some of the water I was drinking. For ten days, I lay there with a very high fever.

I think about half of us who got sick survived the typhus. After ten days in the “hospital,” the survivors were marched straight to the showers to have our heads shaved because of the lice. The lice were eating us up everywhere. Before the shower, our clothes were taken and put in a room with steam, or parowa in Polish. The hot steam killed all the lice and nits. When the shower stopped, we were cold and tried to cover ourselves with our arms. There was a little window in the wall of the shower room, and Polish men were working on the other side. They looked through that window at us, a group of naked girls. One called to the others to come and look. All we had to cover ourselves up with was our arms. With those men looking in at us while we were naked, we felt like we were no longer human beings.

Finally, the door to the shower room was opened and a bundle of clothes was thrown in. We were so anxious to cover ourselves up that we grabbed whatever we could. It didn’t matter if the clothes fit. Then we were marched straight away to the factory. We walked through the snow with open-toed clogs.

I felt certain that if I could survive all of that, I was going to live.

Inside the factory, I was so weak I could hardly walk. My sister didn’t recognize me. The Polish man who always gave me soup was very kind to me. He set up a little crate behind the machines and said, “Sit here. If I see a German Meister [foreman] coming, I’m gonna tell you to go stand by the machine.” The German Meister mostly sat in their office, but a few times a day they walked up and down, wearing white smocks like big shots. They were all SS men who had brought their families to Poland. They had the cushy jobs; they didn’t have to go to the front.

After typhus, there was tuberculosis (TB), which was rampant. Girls were fine one day, and the next day they were sick and couldn’t get up to go to work. They just wasted away and then were carried out, dead from TB. Again, my sister and I were lucky, and we didn’t get TB.

Life went on. That was 1942, 1943, 1944. It’s all a blur.

Sometimes people were saying, “Is there a God in Heaven that allows this to happen?” My brother had a friend in the camp named Shafferstein. That guy, Shafferstein, walked around on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, eating his piece of bread saying, “If He [God] can do this to me, I can’t believe in a God that can allow this to happen.” And he ate that piece of bread. My sister looked at him and said, “See, that’s what happens to people.” Everybody reacted in a different way. We still fasted. We still saved that piece of bread for the evening. On Yom Kippur, it was very easy to fast. Your stomach was used to fasting. You always felt hungry. So what if you were hungry that day too? It wasn’t a big deal. As for God? I didn’t think about it. I couldn’t think about it.

Sometimes we talked while on the bunks: “Maybe a miracle will happen and we’ll come home and our parents will be waiting for us with open arms! They’ll be so happy that we survived.” That’s how we talked among ourselves. We were daydreaming that someone would be happy if we survived. And that helped get us through.

We wanted to live. A friend of my brother’s said to us, “Kinder [children], we have to live so we can tell the world what they did to us.” We looked at him and thought, Oh, he’s right, he’s right! But we couldn’t think that far ahead. We couldn’t think beyond just getting something to eat. Our whole aim in life was to make it through the day.

Every person reacts differently to a situation. I dealt with the situation by depending on my sister. She became like a mother to me in the camp. Whatever she said, I did. Wherever she went, I went. I followed her around because she was my saviour. And I helped her too. If I saw that she was not ready to get up and go to work, I would say, “Come on, come on. You want to live? Get up. Make it fast.”

Rivcha wore glasses because she was so nearsighted she was practically blind. In Europe, glasses were a luxury. If the Germans would have known that she could not see well, for sure they would have killed her.

In the factory, if you went to the washroom and didn’t come back right away, you sometimes got a beating. One day, Rivcha came back from the washroom and the Meister was standing by the machines with his arms crossed. I felt sick because I knew she was going to get it. He smacked her across the face and the glasses fell down and broke. From then on, I became her eyes. She held onto me wherever we went. We walked together and I held her arm. And if I saw there was a step, I said, “Step here, don’t fall.”

Everyone knew that if you had somebody very close, like a brother or a sister, you had a better chance of surviving. My sister-in-law Ruth and her sister were together with us in the camp. We were first cousins, and we all had the same surname. We became known as “The Four Lwowskis.” We were a family. We had each other. Everybody wanted to have somebody to be close to.

12 Paula and Yitzchak 2021 01 26 221931

Paula and her husband, Yitzchak.

9 First wedding in DP camp

The first wedding in the Windischbergerdorf DP camp. Germany, 1946.

10 Paula and Yitzchak with Paulas aunt and uncles in Toronto

Paula (third from left) and her fiancé, Yitzchak (second from left), on the occasion of their engagement with Paula’s aunt, uncles and a cousin. Toronto, 1949.