WARSAW, Poland (AFP) — At 86 years old and the last remaining member of her family, Krystyna Budnicka has made it her mission to recount how she survived the Warsaw ghetto in order to keep her loved ones’ memory alive.
“I lost all six brothers, my sister, my parents, as well as four sisters-in-law,” the silver-haired Budnicka said this week on the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. “I was left all alone.”
A year after invading Poland in September 1939, the Nazi Germans created a special district in the capital for 480,000 Jews. Many would die from hunger or disease in the ghetto, while 300,000 would be sent on to the Treblinka death camp to be gassed.
In the meantime, there were the everyday humiliations imposed by the Germans which left Budnicka’s father broken.
“One day in the street, the Germans cut off half his beard just to amuse themselves. Then they started dancing around him. He came back completely demoralized,” she said.
“He lost all will to live, to fight on,” added Budnicka, who was born Hena Kuczer.
Her brothers picked up the burden. Skilled at manual labour, they began earning money by building hideouts, first for valuables and then for the people themselves.
“At first, people in all their stupidity wanted to save their precious possessions, but really what needed to be saved were lives,” Budnicka said.
Trapdoors and bunkers
Her family managed to evade the Germans several times thanks to the brothers’ hideouts.
One was a kind of invisible trapdoor that allowed them to descend directly into the basement. Another was in a ventilation duct, hidden behind a shelf.
At the time, two of her brothers had been captured during raids and sent to Treblinka.
To save the family, her remaining brothers built a bunker, complete with drinking water, electricity and a tunnel to the sewers leading from the Ghetto to the rest of the city.
Military rigour reigned in the bunker. They slept during the day and moved around at night to avoid drawing attention.
“We already knew we were sentenced to die. This was our only chance for survival,” Budnicka said. “We didn’t have connections or money or the right look. We had no chance to save ourselves in the Aryan part of the city.”
The whole family descended into the bunker in January 1943. They stayed for nine months.
“I lived in a state of lethargy. It was like my vital functions were shut off. My body was functioning only to survive,” Budnicka said.
By April 19, 1943, when the Germans began liquidating the ghetto, 60,000 Jews were left. The Germans burnt down building after building to force everyone to emerge.
“The whole ghetto was aflame, it was like one big oven,” Budnicka said.
That is when the uprising erupted. Hundreds of Jewish fighters attacked the Nazis in order to die fighting instead of in a gas chamber.
Budnicka’s brothers left for battle.
When it became too hot because of the fires, the remaining family members would descend into the sewers. But the Germans found out and started tossing in gas bombs.
“The only one left who knew the layout of the sewers was my 13-year-old brother, but he was a man already and he was the one who directed us and who saved my life,” Budnicka said.
Her exhausted parents and sister decided to stay put in the sewer to wait for help. It never arrived.
Budnicka, her brother and a sister-in-law managed to emerge from the sewers with help from a Polish-Jewish organisation that took them in.
Her younger brother died of sepsis two weeks later.
Another brother, a member of the resistance, was handed over to the Nazi Germans in 1944 by a Pole who also betrayed his own father.
After the war, 12-year-old Budnicka was placed in an orphanage.
She later became a special educational needs teacher and for years tried to leave her memories behind.
It is only after the Children of the Holocaust association was created in 1991 that she changed her mind.
“I told myself that it’s by sharing what happened that I honor those who died,” Budnicka said. “As long as we’re talking about it, they’re still alive.”