Rose's Story

My mother, Rose Silberberg Skier, tells the miraculous story of how she survived the Holocaust

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Part XI

So we came there, to the Convent, as workers. I was just a kid. My aunt was the worker, field worker. And because the Convent had a farm and a dispensary, and a small school. But mainly it was a farm. And the nuns were German nuns. And here we had papers that we were Christians. So this was nothing to do with Jews anymore. Just Christians.

I remember before we left Poland, that the woman, where we stayed a few days, she went out and she bought crosses for us. She said wear the crosses, you know, just in case. We did.

Now, when we were in that Convent, I remember that we were told that we were going to sleep with another roommate. Her name was Irena. She was a Polish Christian girl. She was 19 years old. She was very anti-Semitic. And we realized right away that we had to watch our step.

My aunt knew that she had the pictures with her. And she was afraid that this girl was going to discover the pictures. So she said, “You know what? I’m taking these pictures, come with me, we’ll go to the cellar. We’ll put it underneath a rock. But just let’s remember where we put the pictures.”

OK, so the pictures were gone. And the clothes, we left in that suitcase, never unpacked, because most of it was summer clothes. So we just had what was on our backs. Very little clothes. And my aunt started to work there.

Now, the nuns told my aunt, “Look, even though you’re Christians, it makes no difference. Because you are Poles, you are not considered on the level of the Germans. And therefore Rose cannot go to school with German children, because she’s not allowed to sit next to German kids. So therefore, Rose is just going to work in the kitchen.” My aunt said, “Whatever you say, fine.”
So at that time I was still nine years old.

So I was like a busboy..busgirl. I used to help. I remember especially Sister Roberta, she was half-Polish/half-German, so she used to do all the menial work. And cooking. All the lousy stuff. And she used to be my boss. And I used to help her out. Bring string beans to the dining room, and things like that. And we served the nuns.

And, I’ll tell you one thing…life was not bad. If you were Polish and you were a Christian, the Germans didn’t do a thing. As long as you did your work, it was peaceful. It was very pleasant, considering where we came from. From the horror. Here we were among civilized people. So we thought. I mean, they didn’t know who we were, so they were civilized. We used to go for walks. After work on Sunday we went to Church. And it was beautiful.

Now, suddenly, it dawned on my aunt, that she said, “You know, Christmas is going to come? Christmas, do you know what that means?” I said, “What?”

She said, “It means, that something is done on Christmas, which I remember, with a wafer. And I don’t know what. And I’m the oldest among the Polish workers. And if I don’t know what to do, they will know we are Jews.”

There was no library where you could go to find out what do you do on Christmas. It wasn’t America! And you couldn’t ask anybody because you would arouse suspicion. To say, hey, tell me what do you do on Christmas? Forget it. You’re dead!

She was in despair. She started to cry. She said, “I don’t know what to do. We’re going to die.” Over a little technicality!

But, two days before Christmas she says, “I got it! I know! We’re going to assemble Christmas eve. They’ll take out the wafers. I’m going to pick a fight with one of my co-workers, and I’ll run off to my room. You stay behind. You’re the smallest. You watch what they are doing. After the second one does the same thing, you say to them, ‘I’m going for my mother. I don’t want her to be alone on Christmas. I’ll bring her back.’ Come up, tell me what they do, and I’ll come back.”

That’s exactly what happened! I watched, I saw the same thing, and I said I want my mother, and they said, yeah, go get her…I went and I told her and she came back. And then she went over to the worker and she said, “Oh I’m so sorry I picked a fight. I miss Poland, and it’s Christmas…” And the other one said, “I thought you were CRAZY, and I didn’t do a thing to you, and what were you yelling…but OK, I’ll forgive you. It’s Christmas.” They hugged and they kissed; they made up.

Now this is something you don’t anticipate when you are assuming somebody else’s identity. Who thinks of such things? How do I find out what they do on certain holidays?

DP: What did they do?

RS: They were putting the wafer on the tongue. Now I don’t remember what else was going on. But still you had to know what to do with the wafer. What did you do? Bite it? Eat it? Chew it? Spit it? What? You still had to know what to do. It was so important.

Then came something else. It came January 1945. That’s a very important time.

DP: At this point did you have any information about what happened to your family?

RS: Nothing. Not a thing. We didn’t know anything. We used to get propaganda from the radio. We weren’t allowed to listen to the radio as Poles. But we overheard the radio, where they said that Germans are winning on all fronts. Beautiful. Oh, God, you know? But we’re going to stay here for the rest of our lives, that’s what we said. Of course it wasn’t true, but that’s what they said. That’s what we knew. The Germans are winning, and nothing else, and we were not allowed to read newspapers. Even though the nuns were reading, but we were not allowed, and we were afraid to take them, because these were German nuns.



  • At Friday, March 27, 2009 9:21:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Mark, Thank you so much for making a blog of your mother's story. I couldn't stop reading it.

    The Christmas thing with the wafers that your great-aunt was so worried about is the Christmas Eve tradition of sharing oplatki (wafers). The ritual is part of the meatless Christmas Eve feast in Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania and possibly other Eastern European countries. Oplatki are still a favorite part of the holidays in my Slovak-American family.(I'm about the same age as you.)

    Your aunt was correct to worry that as the oldest Polish worker she would be expected to know what do to with the oplatki.
    Each oplatek is about the size and thickness of an index card and is usually embossed with a picture of the Holy Family or some other religious design. It is made from flour and water, just like Communion wafers but since it is not consecrated during Mass it is not considered "the body of Christ."
    Traditionally, the father of the family takes an oplatek and hands it to his wife, who breaks off a piece, then takes her piece and shares it with the next person at the table, all the way down to the youngest child. Since your great-aunt was the eldest Pole at the Christmas Eve dinner she probably would have been expected to act as the "elder" and start the oplatki ritual. Depending on the region, there is a ritual blessing or phrase that is exchanged as the oplatek is passed and shared. In our Slovak-American tradition, we also spread our piece of oplatek with honey before eating it.

    You can order oplatki online if you are curious about this tradition that so panicked your mom and her aunt. Also, Polish/Slovak-American churches sometimes start selling it after Thanksgiving as a fundraiser. It's a seasonal item. Nowadays, there are usually instructions about the tradition on the package.

    I think your aunt was right to worry about a possible oplatek faux pas; not all Catholics know their prayers, but everyone likes and remembers Christmas traditions.

    I am so glad she managed to get through that horrible Christmas Eve.


Post a Comment

<< Home