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Warsaw Ghetto Survivor | Andrew Tylman

Last weekend I had the immense privilege of interviewing five Holocaust survivors in Canada with the Crestwood Oral Histories ProjectWe heard testimonies that were heavy with the heartache that comes from incomprehensible acts of evil, loss, and tragedy. In spite of this, their perseverance and hope outweighed their circumstances and they emerged from the Holocaust as resilient individuals with a love for life and radiant kindness toward others.

I'll start with Andrew.

Andrew was nearly nine years old when deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka extermination camp began. His parents managed to arrange for him to be hidden on the "Ayran" side of Warsaw just a few weeks before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began in April, 1943.

His father, Henryk, made contact with a Polish man who arranged for the family to be hidden. Andrew was to go first, followed by his parents later. One day he joined his father's work group as they were leaving the ghetto for daily forced labor. He stayed close to the middle of the work group to avoid being seen.

"As we approached the gate the German soldier in charge walked up to us and quizzically looked down at me. I calmly looked up at him. He seemed to be nine feet tall. The head of the group spoke with him, explaining that I was his messenger boy."

Andrew's mother, Mira, had been following the group at a distance. Andrew turned and gave a small wave as he walked out of the ghetto. That was the last time he saw his mother. 

From the ghetto, Andrew was taken to hiding places in various homes in the city and countryside on rotation in order to mitigate the chance of discovery. As a young child in hiding, Andrew had moments of deep sadness where he thought, "Why me?" He felt this especially strong when hiding in the city where he could see children playing freely in the courtyards. 

He was hidden among Polish resistance fighters, such as a farmer's 19 year old son named Francizek. Francizek used to show Andrew underground newspapers that reported resistance activities and war news. Andrew recalls being in the room at a resistance meeting as they were planning action against the Germans. It lasted nearly two hours, during which Andrew pretended to be asleep. A few weeks later, German solders came to the house and beat Francizek behind the barn before taking him away. Andrew never saw him again.

"Afterwards the bloodied pieces of wood, about three inches in diameter that they'd beaten him with was found behind the barn. Then the man who was hiding me said that perhaps they should save the wood for some future memorial museum."

While Andrew was in hiding, his parents were trapped in the ghetto during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They tried seven times to escape through the sewers. During one attempt a German soldier threw a gas grenade into the sewer, killing Andrew's mother. His father managed to plunge himself into the sewer water fast enough to evade the gas.

Andrew's mother, Mira, is in the center.
In May 1943, SS General Jürgen Stroop ordered his troops to burn the ghetto after weeks of Jewish resistance. Andrew's father joined the last of the ghetto resistance fighters as they escaped through the murky sewers.

"The group, consisting of over one hundred people, was told to be at a specific manhole at a certain time. When they arrived at the appointed place the commanders of the group decided there were too many of them concentrated in one place. They ordered one-third of the group to wait some distance to the left and one-third to the right. Father was told to go with one of the outer groups. He saw that the top commanders were staying right where they were, and he decided to stay there with them."

When the manhole was finally raised, they hurried up the rungs of the ladder and emerged on the Ayran side of Warsaw in broad daylight. Andrew's father remembered Zivia Lubetkin, a commander of the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB), being among them. A truck was waiting which Simcha "Kazik" Rotem organized for their evacuation and the fighters piled into the back. Only about forty to fifty people, including Andrew's father, were able to escape. The other two groups didn't survive. Andrew's father met with Zivia, Antek, and Kazik after the war. 

It was mind-boggling to hear Andrew tell this story because when I was in Warsaw I saw the same manhole where the fighters and Andrew's father emerged that day in May, 1943.

Andrew's father stayed in the forests with the partisans briefly before being reunited with Andrew. Itzhak "Antek" Zuckerman, a commander of the ZOB on the Aryan side, arranged for a Polish man named Kajszczak to hide Andrew and his father in his stable. Antek sent false identity papers, books, newspapers, and money to them through Kajszczak. Together in hiding, Andrew and his father had lots of time to talk. This is when he learned what happened to his mother and how his father escaped. 

There were a few close calls when the Germans almost discovered them. One summer morning, Andrew and his father had to hide among sheaves in the fields.

"We stayed there until evening. I heard a woman's voice, not very far away, saying, 'Kill me but don't beat me.' It was one of the Jewish ghetto fighters who had gone into the forest to join the partisans. The group had been scattered after a battle with the Germans. A few partisan survivors were working their way back to where they came from. They asked a few people for directions, and one of them alerted the Germans and they were caught."

The closest call was in the summer of 1944 when a German army unit stopped at Kajszczak's farm and set up a field kitchen. Andrew and his father's hiding place was an enclosure within a pile of wood and branches. A German soldier began taking branches off their hiding place for the fire, and Andrew could see them through the branches. Kajszczak suddenly ran over.

"I have better wood and coal for you to burn. You don't need these branches," Kajszczak said.

Because of this close call, Andrew and his father were moved to another hiding place in Warsaw only two days before the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 which was led by the Polish resistance. Two months later, Warsaw fell to the Germans and Hitler ordered Warsaw to be destroyed. 

Warsaw in ruins
Andrew and his father were among the hundreds of thousands of evacuees who fled the city. They were taken to a transit camp and then sent on a passenger train to south of Krakow. Every village was required to take in evacuees from Warsaw, and Andrew found himself living in poverty on Polish farmstead. They continued on, living with other farmers along the way until liberation. After the liberation they eventually made their way back to their hometown of Sochaczew, Poland. They then made their way to Lodz, Poland, Paris, France, and finally to Toronto, Canada in 1951.

Father and son
Andrew's story is one of amazing survival. His father worked tirelessly to arrange, persuade, and pay for a hiding place, using what little reserves the family had to keep Andrew safe. Andrew and his father survived the Holocaust and are "a living miracle and a testament to the resilience and capacity of the individual" as the Azrieli Foundation so aptly states. I'm incredibly grateful to Andrew for taking the time to tell me his experiences so I can carry them into the future. 

With thanks and gratitude to Scott Masters of the Crestwood Oral Histories Project for making this interview possible! 


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