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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2000-12-01
  • Publisher: Univ of Nebraska Pr
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In 1942 German Nazis and Polish collaborators drove nine-year-old Naomi Rosenberg and her family from the town of Goray, Poland, and into hiding. For nearly two years they were forced to take refuge in a crawl space beneath a barn. In this tense and moving memoir, the author tells of her terror and confusion as a child literally buried alive. Her family owed their survival to the reluctant and constantly wavering support of the barn owners, gentiles torn between compassion for Naomi's family and fear of a Nazi death sentence if the family was discovered. Naomi Samson lives in Baltimore. Kenneth Jacobson is the assistant director of the Anti-Defamation League. Joseph Samson, a practicing attorney, is Naomi Samson's son.

Author Biography

Naomi Samson lives in Baltimore. Kenneth Jacobson is the assistant director of the Anti-Defamation League. Joseph Samson, a practicing attorney, is Naomi Samson’s son.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Foreword ix
Preface xi
Epilogue 175


Chapter One

After three years of humiliation and slow torture by the Nazis in Poland -- with the help of many Polish gentiles -- life for us, the Jewish people, was rapidly coming to an end. Cities and towns were now being emptied of Jews. The German word Judenrein , which means "cleansed of Jews," was heard more and more often. Jews were being sent to camps by the masses, never to return. People were constantly looking for places to hide, to run away from the frequent "roundups" for deportation. The atmosphere was thick with gloom and fear. Forgotten by the rest of the world, we, the chosen people, it seemed, were now chosen for torture, humiliation, and finally death at the hands of the murderers.

One of the darkest days in my life was November 2, 1942. The night before, as in the previous couple of weeks, my mother had dragged us children down into our hiding place through a trapdoor in the kitchen floor, because Judenrein was inevitable. The SS, the Gestapo, and the German soldiers, with the help of many Polish collaborators, would usually attack at night, killing many Jews on the spot and rounding up the rest for the camps.

"No more hiding," said my oldest sister, Chaya-Leeba, on that night. "Don't you all see? It's no use -- we cannot escape an army and so many willing Polish people who are eager to help point out the Jews. So why not die with some dignity, the way Father taught us before they killed him three weeks ago? Daddy was a great man, and I will soon join him."

With tears in her eyes, my mother took the rest of us kids down -- my two sisters, Perele and Janice, my brother, Josh, and me. I was the youngest, nine and a half years old. At dawn Mother said, "Well, it seems we may be safe for another day," and we came up and closed the trapdoor.

This old house in the town of Frampol, Poland, was full of people, including us, who had fled from many places. We had fled originally from the town of Goray. As each of us started finding his or her nook on this cold November morning, we were all shocked to hear and see trucks full of Germans with helmets and machine guns. Wasting no time, they jumped off the trucks as they were still moving and began shooting at the Jewish people at random, yelling, "Get over there! Line up, you cursed Jews!"

People started to scramble. Pushing, shoving, trying to run away from the rain of bullets. There was so much confusion and so little time to think which way to run. While still near the house, we had to step over people who had been shot. They were screaming and begging for help. Young women on the ground, bleeding, clutching their babies, were crying out for someone to help them. But none of us could afford the luxury of giving these poor souls even a few seconds, because all of us were in the same situation.

Soon we reached the gentile section of town, but still there were fierce-looking German soldiers with machine guns chasing after us. By this time it seemed that they had a planned pattern. They knew the areas where the Jews would try to escape, and they surrounded those areas. We ran through the mud and jumped over fences into the fields, which were freshly plowed and very difficult to run in. My mother kept shoving me over these high wooden fences, and I kept getting weaker from being thrown over and falling on the ground. At one point I realized that my mother was quite a distance away, my sister Perele was also ahead of me, and they were the only people from my family now running near me. My only thought was that I must not lose sight of my mother and Perele, or I'd be dead and they wouldn't even know where I died. In my panic I screamed at the top of my lungs, "Please, Mama, please, Perele, don't leave me here alone to die!"

Mama couldn't hear me. She was a little farther ahead than Perele. The shots and the screaming of so many wounded people were deafening. Perele heard me and slowed down so that I could run with her. Our hands kept pulling apart, so she said to me, "Hold onto my coat pocket, Naomi, our hands are slippery."

As I grabbed hold of her coat pocket, I caught a glimpse of my mother, who was still running ahead of us. She would turn for a second and motion to us to hurry up. There were so many people running, falling to the ground screaming when bullets would hit them. The sound of the machine guns, held by those fierce-looking Germans with helmets on their heads, was unbearable. As we kept on running, we came upon more wounded people on the field and more dead bodies that we had to step over. The wounded were whimpering and begging for help. Several times on that day I would be faced by helmeted Germans about to shoot me, but by sheer luck the machine gun would be turned away from me toward a bigger crowd. Suddenly, Perele fell to the ground. I fell down with her, thinking she wanted those Germans near us to think we were dead. Then she said to me, "Dear one, I've been hit by a bullet in my leg, I can't run anymore. You, child, get up quickly and catch up with Mother."

"You get up!" I yelled at her with anger, as if to say, What are you doing to me? "Get up and run with me!" I yelled again.

"I can't anymore," she said, "but you, Naomi, you can still run, so waste no more time. Maybe someone from our family will survive to tell about these horrors; maybe that someone will be you." And she pushed me away.

I remember turning my head back toward Perele while running again, this time alone. I hesitated for a moment, thinking, "What should I do now? Should I die now, near Perele, or continue until I'm shot and killed?" I hoped I wouldn't just be wounded, to die a fearful death out here in the muddy field, the way Perele and so many others were now dying. Perele lifted up her head and waved at me to continue running. I saw her right hand touching a body lying by her side. Her face was flushed; she looked so beautiful. What did her words, "survive to tell about these horrors," mean? No one would survive that day, especially not little me. No more Thinking -- I had to continue to run.

Now the ground was covered with many more people, and fewer were running. The shooting was still fierce, and I ran on with all my might. Suddenly, at a distance, I saw my mother! "Mama, Mama!" I cried.

At first she couldn't hear me. Everybody still alive was screaming something. Most people were calling to God, begging for help. I, too, was crying to God, "God, what is happening today? Is this the end of the world? Please help me!"

Finally I caught up with my mother, and she took my hand.

By this time it was late afternoon. We couldn't see any more Jews or Germans, but we could still hear some sounds of gunfire. We kept on running, only more slowly. After a while we began to see a village, houses that gentile people lived in, and children playing games and singing songs, like my friends and I used to do. My mother ripped off her armband with the blue star of David on it. I was panic-stricken. "What are you doing, Mama? You know that Jewish men and women have to wear an armband with the Jewish star, so that the Germans can easily identify us, and if you take it off and they catch us ..."

"It doesn't matter anymore, child. Jews are no longer permitted to live, with or without an armband," replied my mother.

With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I turned to my mother and asked, "Mama, how come these children are playing games and are not afraid of being killed, but I am?"

"Don't talk so much," said my mother. "Keep walking a little faster."

"Mama, look at those girls. They are just like me. They are playing skip-rope and other games and singing the same songs my friends and I used to sing when we were still allowed to live. Why are they free to sing and play, while I have to keep running and hiding from the Germans?"

"You know why, child. You are Jewish and they are not," said Mama. "Walk a little faster, Naomi, or we'll be dead a lot sooner than you think."

"But Mama, what's wrong with being Jewish? You and Daddy always taught us that to be Jewish is to be good to others, to be considerate of other people, to say my prayers to God every morning and every night. I have been doing just that, and I never hurt anybody. I'm only nine and a half years old, and I haven't had much time to do many good deeds. Why then, Mama, must we die only because we are Jewish?"

"I don't know, child. Don't ask so many questions. We are not supposed to question the Almighty. It seems he decided our fate. No more questions, just keep walking as fast as you can."

Then Mother said, "We have to get into the forest, because these children's parents might drag us into town to be killed by the Germans so that they can collect a bag of sugar for each of us. That is the reward the Germans are giving to help clean out Jews." (At the time I couldn't quite comprehend what she meant, but it became clearer to me about three months later, while in hiding. We learned that my mother's only sister and her husband were found hiding, and they were brought into town tied up with rope for the Germans to kill them. The two village boys who brought them in were rewarded with two bags of sugar.)

I stopped asking questions and walked along with Mama until we were deep in the woods and it was quiet at last. But the gunfire was still ringing in my ears, and the expressions of pain and fear on people's faces were still with me. Now we stopped.

"Let's lie down," said Mama. "We seem to be safe for now." My mouth was dry and hungry, my lips parched. Exhausted from this long day, I lay down on the ground very close to my mother. She put her arm around me and I felt her squeezing me tight as I fell asleep, pretending our nightmare was over. But our nightmare was to go on and on for two more years.

The early morning sun was piercing through the almost naked trees as I awoke and tried to open my eyes. As I tried to move away from my mother, all parts of my body were aching. My mouth and throat felt dry and painful, and my lips were chapped, but I managed to sit up. My mother didn't move. Her eyes were still closed, and her face looked very sad. I touched her a few times, and finally, she sat up.

"Mama, what will happen now?" I asked. She just looked at me with sadness. "I'm hungry, Mama, and I'm also aching, and I'm cold. What are we going to do now, Mama?"

Again my mother looked at me sadly, and tears came running down her cheeks. "I don't know what we are going to do, child," she said. "Our whole family is probably dead -- they were all killed. All the Jews we knew are now most likely dead. It's just you and me here in the wilderness. I envy the dead. They do not have to die again the way you and I do."

I panicked as my mother again talked about dying. "But Mama, we don't have to die, we can live right here in this forest forever. I'll never complain again." I was shivering as I looked at Mama. She drew me close to her, and we both wept uncontrollably for some time. Then my mother noticed some wild berries in the distance. She pointed her finger toward them and told me to go get them. I picked for a while, but then I realized that my mother must also be hungry, so I picked a handful of these berries and brought them to her. I spent the rest of the day looking for more berries. There weren't many berries left in November, and I was scared to go too far away from Mama -- we mustn't lose each other in the woods.

Late that afternoon my mother said that when it got dark we would leave the forest and try to reach the village of Zagrody, where a family by the name of Chmelinsky lived. Mr. and Mrs. Chmelinsky had some of our valuables that my father had entrusted to them to keep them safe from the Germans. Mother said that he was an honest and decent man. "Maybe he will help us."

"That's great," I said. "We are not going to die, after all!"

My mother started looking around, trying to figure out which direction was the right one for the road to Zagrody. When it got dark, we started walking. It seemed we walked forever before we saw the houses of the village of Zagrody. My mother knocked on the window of Mr. Chmelinsky's house several times before he came. He opened the window, looked at my mother and me, and then crossed himself. "What! You are alive, Mrs. Rosenberg? And this is your girl?" He asked.

"This is my baby girl, Naomi. She's hungry and cold. Please, Mr. Chmelinsky, help us hide somewhere. You can keep our belongings. Please do it for this child's sake. She is scared to die, and she has really not lived very much."

I stood there and prayed to God that this man would have pity on us and help us.

"Wait right here. I'll be out in a minute." He walked away from the window, and I saw two of his daughters, about my age or so, standing with their mother's hands on their shoulders. How I envied them! When he returned, Mr. Chmelinsky led us into a barn packed with hay. He told us to push ourselves in near the wall as much as possible, and he said, "I'll be back soon."

We pushed away the hay as much as we could and sat down. He returned with a pitcher of milk and a chunk of bread. We gobbled it up in no time. While we were eating, he took his lantern and disappeared. "Let us say our nightly prayers," said Mama. We said the Shema together in the dark. We felt so grateful for this nook in the hay.

But it didn't last. At dawn, while Mama and I were sound asleep against a wooden wall, Mr. Chmelinsky started shaking us. "Get up!" he yelled. He handed us winter clothing from our family's hidden belongings -- my brother Joshua's herringbone coat for me and a wool shawl for Mama. Then he told us we must leave.

"Please, please," we begged him. "You don't have to feed us much," said Mama. "We will be no trouble to you. Just let us stay, and we'll be very quiet. No one will ever hear us."

"Get out immediately," he said, "or I'll kill you myself!" And he pulled a gun from his jacket pocket. "I'm not going to risk my life helping Jews. Out -- fast!"

He pushed us out of there and told us never to come near his property again. As my mother cried and begged some more, he pulled the trigger and we heard a shot. Each one of us thought the other one was wounded as we ran with all our might. We realized that he was serious about killing us if we didn't leave him alone.

Once again we were in the woods, sitting on the ground watching another day begin. With my brother's coat on me and with Mama now wearing her woolen shawl I was more hopeful that my mother would think of another good plan to survive. "Mama, what will we do now?" I asked.

"Tonight we will try another village, called Zastavia," she answered.

When the sun went down once again, my mother had to decide which way to go out of the forest to get to Zastavia. When we got to Zastavia, Mother once again knocked on the windows of people she had known for years. In one house a young woman came to the window, and when she saw us, she yelled to her husband, " Zydy [Jews] -- get up and kill them!"

We ran as fast as we could, then hid behind someone else's house for a few minutes. When we were able to catch our breath, we continued. But we ran into more and more bad luck. Finally, a gentile woman opened her window and gave us a bowl of cold potato soup, which we ate in no time. When my mother asked her if she would hide us, she quickly responded, "Mrs. Rosenberg, you and your little girl are Jewish, so you have to die. But we will not risk ourselves in helping Jews. Jews must die now, not us."

With that she grabbed back her bowl and shut the window. Near her house was a large haystack. My mother got an idea. "Let's try climbing to the top of this haystack and coveting ourselves with hay." It took us a long time to climb up, but we made it. While we were climbing up that mountain of hay, I saw the woman staring out of her window, watching us. No sooner did we get settled than we heard someone crawling up after us. "Well, once again it's the end," I thought. It was the woman's son.

"Hey, Jews, let me take you into town to the Germans and I'll get a bag of sugar for each of you. You know if we help find Jews we are rewarded with sugar and sugar is hard to come by. You will die anyway."

"Get down from there, and don't you have a hand in killing people!" yelled his mother. "Let others clean out the Jews!" Then she shouted, "And you Jews get down and run or I will let him kill you right here!"

Needless to say, we ran with all our might until we found ourselves in the wilderness once again, this time in the middle of the night. "Mama, what are we going to do?" I asked once again.

My mother was quiet for a long time. I looked at her face to see her expression. It was a dark night with few stars in the sky. The trees were tall and there were so many of them. They made me think of the German and Polish guards who had surrounded our hometown ghetto in Goray for the past three years. Suddenly, my mother spoke. "Listen to me, my child," she said. "We can't go on like this. We will either die of starvation and the animals will eat our flesh here in the woods, or someone in these villages will kill us. I have decided we should walk to our hometown, Goray, which is about eight or nine miles from here, and give ourselves up at the Jewish cemetery. That way we will be buried with other Jewish people."

"No, no!" I cried. "I will not die this way or any other way! I want to live, Mama, I don't want to feel bullets fired in my head or body! Bullets are hot and they burn a person's insides and it hurts badly until the person is dead!"

"Don't think about that part," Mama said. "Think about heaven and all our family. We'll all be together. Think about your friends, your sisters and brother, all the people in our town who are waiting to greet us in heaven. Think about that."

"No! I will not be killed! I refuse to die, Mama!"

"Stop crying like a baby. I can't take it!" said my mother.

So I got up and I walked away from her and sat down with my back against a tree trunk. I was angry at Mama, but I was even more frightened now, because I sensed that my mother's mind was made up.

The next day was just as hard as the day before. I looked for berries, but there were few. I was cold, thirsty, and hungry, and oh, was I scared! But, most of all, I was now very angry with my mother. We didn't speak all day. At night we tried again to get some help, but time after time we experienced the same bad luck. Either people tried to catch us and bring us to the Germans for sugar, or they just tried to kill us on the spot. This went on for several more days. And every day Mother talked about that cemetery in our hometown, Goray, and I wouldn't hear of it.

At one point I told my mother, "Go get killed at the Jewish cemetery the proper way. I'll stay here by myself."

"You can't," she said. "Don't you understand, child? We can't escape a whole German army, plus the Polish people who are helping the Germans wipe out every last Jew."

"But, Mama, this war will end and the Germans will lose, Daddy said so many times."

"That is true, Naomi. The Germans will lose, and they will suffer and pay for all the horrors they are causing now. But we can't outlast them and survive."

For about four or five more days, I kept fighting for life with Mama, while every day we grew weaker, colder, and more thirsty, but less hungry. I would put wet leaves on my lips and tongue to suck up the dew. Finally, I too thought that death was the only way. So with much fear and sadness, I turned to my mother and said, "Let's go and die with some dignity at the Jewish cemetery in Goray."

It was a cloudy afternoon, and a thin snow was coming down when Mother and I, hand in hand, started walking toward Goray. It seemed to me we walked for hours. No one bothered us. I, wearing my brother's coat, and Mama, covered with her shawl, must have looked like any other mother and child. I had no more fear in me, no more feelings either. We just kept on walking.

Suddenly my mother stopped. "Look, Naomi," she said, pointing to some houses off the road. "This is the village of Lada. We used to have many gentile friends in this village. In this first house straight ahead live the Kowaliks. Dear friends. Let's stop in to see the Kowaliks. We have nothing to lose anymore," said Mama.

So we got off the road and walked straight toward their house. It was getting dark outside. We walked into a hallway that led to the door of the Kowaliks' kitchen. My mother just opened the door and walked in. When Mrs. Kowalik saw us, she yelled out loud while crossing herself, "It's you, Faiga Rosenberg! You, you are alive! You are not a ghost are you?"

"Yes, Maria Kowalik, I'm not a ghost yet, and this is my youngest daughter, Naomi. Can we sit down?" asked my mother.

"Sit, sit? she answered.

It was warm in her kitchen, and the food on the stove smelled so good! Four of her seven children were in the kitchen, staring at us, as Mrs. Kowalik brought over some milk and bread. "Eat and drink. You both look awful," she said.

As I ate the bread, I was thinking of how we would soon be killed at the cemetery, and the food just wouldn't go down my throat. My mother was telling Mrs. Kowalik that we were the only ones alive now from all the Jews in Goray.

"No, you are not the only ones. Two days ago your sister and her husband were here, and I fed them too."

My mother's face came alive. "What, my only sister, Hudel, and her husband are alive? Where are they? Are you hiding them, maybe? Please tell me!"

"No," said Mrs. Kowalik. "I sent them on their way like I'll ask you to leave now, too. I can't risk my family to save Jews. It's a terrible war!" And then she opened the door and asked us to leave.

As we walked out of her house, I expected that my mother and I would continue our walk to Goray to our death. But instead, my mother said to me, "I have an idea. Don't ask any questions. Just stay with me and do what I do."

Mama took my hand, and quickly we walked toward the Kowaliks' barns and stables, about three hundred yards from the house. There we crawled under a wagon near a wall and sat down. My heart started racing again with hope. But I kept quiet. About two hours had gone by when Mrs. Kowalik came out with a bucket to milk the cows. Mama pulled me by my hand and we went over to her as she was milking a cow.

"Jesus Christus!" Mrs. Kowalik yelled out. "You keep scaring the life out of me! What are you still doing here? My daughters, Wlatka and Juzefka, will be here in a minute to help me milk the cows, so you'd better be on your way!"

"We have no place to go to," Mama said. "If you don't help us hide, we are just going to give ourselves up in Goray to die. Our lives are now in your hands, Maria Kowalik. Please don't have this child's blood on your conscience. Please hide us somewhere here!"


Excerpted from HIDE by NAOMI SAMSON. Copyright 2000 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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