This story was written in Hebrew by the surviving daughter of Bendet Akselrad of Korczyna and Krosno. The family was well established and had extensive roots and history in Korczyna and the vicinity. It contributed heavily to the Jewish community and provided leaders for the Jewish communities of Korczyna and Krosno for several generations until these communities and their Jewish residents were destroyed by the Germans during WWII.
My father was Bendet Akselrad, head of the Jewish communities of Korczyna and Krosno, Galicia. He was married to Cila Freifeld and they had five sons and a daughter. My oldest brother was Shmuel, who was born in 1909 and married Klara Rosenberg from Debice; they had a daughter named Irenka, born in 1935. My second brother was Shalom, born in 1911. My third brother, Avraham, was born in 1922. My fourth brother was Yehuda, born in 1924, and fifth was Levy, born in 1930. I, Berta Akselrad, was born on 24 May 1932. I was the sheltered baby of the family.
I will try to describe the family as far as my memories permit, since I was a small youngster at the time, as my birthday indicates. The family revolved around my father, who was devoted to the community. He was a gentle person who had a great deal of patience and listened to everybody who came to the house with a problem; the Jews of Krosno and Korczyna had many problems, mainly survival in an anti-Semitic environment.
As a child I loved the Jewish holidays of Purim and Passover, and Friday nights. My father always brought home dinner guests from the synagogue who joined us at the table and shared our meals. Dinners were always interlaced with discussions. To this day, people who knew my father praise him for his patience, understanding, and assistance in solving problems. These people describe to me in great detail deeds of his that were unknown to me. These comments make me feel proud of my parents and family.
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Father devoted most of his time to the community and considered this task to be his raison d’être, or essence of life. He left his various businesses in Krosno to his older sons while he devoted himself to the needs of the Jewish population. The oldest sons, Shmuel and Shalom, graduated from the school of commerce and administration and managed the family businesses. Bendet Akselrad was also a graduate of this school. Schooling was very limited for Jews and some trades or professions were closed to Jews, though in some instances a few Jewish students were admitted as a token presence.
Mother helped my father, since she received the people who came to the house while father was not at home. She spoke to the visitors and made notations that were relayed to Father on his arrival. My brother and I also had important jobs, for we ran to open the door whenever the bell rang.
Family discussions revolved around the impending war, and my parents and older brothers were very perturbed by the news events of the day. I was terrified and expected the worst, especially when I heard the screechings of Hitler on the radio. I had bad feelings but did not really understand what was happening.
The Polish-German war started in September 1939. My brother Shalom was immediately drafted at night and I was unable to say good-bye to him. Time passed and we heard nothing from him. Then a Pole came to our house and told the family that my brother had serious leg injuries and was being treated at a hospital in Stanislawow, Eastern Galicia. Of course, he received a nice reward for the information. Father took with him Avraham and Yehuda and they left the house in the direction of the city where Shalom was supposedly convalescing. He left the community affairs in the hands of Shmuel. They soon arrived at Stanislawow and discovered the hoax: Shalom Akselrad was not in the city. But they did meet many Jews from Krosno who had fled to this area prior to the arrival of the Germans. The Akselrads decided to return home, but Russian forces now occupied Stanislawow as part of the partition of Poland by Germany and Russia. It took some doing, but they managed to reach Krosno. Here a postcard awaited from Shalom, who was a prisoner of war in a German camp. Shalom continued to send postcards, and in one he informed us that he would soon be sent home. Our joy was boundless.
Father was very busy with the community and was assisted by his older sons. The city of Krosno had received many Jewish refugees from many places who needed help and temporary lodgings. The Jewish economic situation in the city was very bad, for many Jewish businesses were confiscated and Jews were not permitted to circulate freely in the city. The situation worsened with each day. A white armband with a Star of David had to be worn; anti-Jewish rules and regulations appeared daily. The situation assumed alarming proportions, and my father and brothers barely coped with the situation. They tried to help however they could. The fact that Father and my brothers spoke fluent German, for the family had lived for many years in Vienna and had Austrian citizenship, gave them the ability to use the language to help Jews in Krosno.
The Germans refused to deal with Jews and especially those who did not speak German. Every demand had to be written and submitted to the Germans in their own language. The Akselrads were busy drafting and writing all kinds of requests for Jews in Krosno. They also had to follow up on these requests, and I saw my father’s face when he returned with a negative answer. Although I was small, I began to hear strange and meaningless but frightening words such as concentration camps, ghetto, searches, and Gestapo. I did not understand these words but feared them, for they were uttered in fright. I began to mature rapidly as children do in such circumstances.The Jewish economic situation in Krosno went from bad to worse with each day. My family’s worries about my well being greatly increased with the German occupation of the town. One evening Father came home and I saw the sadness in his eyes. Mother told me that they wanted to talk to me privately. My parents had decided to seek shelter for me with a non-Jewish family named Krukierek. Our family was well acquainted with this family, whose sons worked at our sawmill in Krosno. The family had responded positively to the inquiries. Father told me that he had found a special place for me with a fine Polish family that wanted to take me to their house. He told me that they would like me very much. I listened seriously but did not really understand what was taking place.
My mother packed a suitcase of clothing and I packed a small suit- case of items that were dear to me. I took some notebooks, pencils, coloring pencils, and other knickknacks that were precious to me. One evening, my brother Shalom took me to my new family. I cried all the way while my brother talked to me about behaving nicely to the family members and to be obedient and respectful. He told me that I would have a new name that I must use. Furthermore, I must not cry or ask to return home.
The separation was very difficult and painful. My brother tried his best to soothe my feelings by saying that the family would always be in touch and visit me at the new home. When I asked why I had to leave home, he had no immediate answer. Shalom merely said that our parents had selected a nice, safe place for me where I would be treated as a member of the family. His words gave me some confidence and I ceased crying. Parting was very sad; I saw the tears in my brother’s eyes and I barely restrained myself from crying again. We then entered the new house and I was greeted warmly.
My New Family
The family was very happy to receive me. I saw a grandmother, a grandfather, and a young couple who would be my new parents. The couple had no children of their own, thus perhaps the incentive to adopt a child and the joy of seeing me in their home. Of course, I was very sad since I felt alone when my brother left. The new family named me Basia, a typical Polish Christian name.
I cried the entire first night and was unable to fall asleep. I had a hard time adjusting to the idea that I had been left alone with a strange new family. No longer would I be able to rejoin my dear and beloved family. I rose early in the morning and went to the yard. I approached the gate and looked at the path that we had used the previous night, but nobody was in sight.
I stood there and cried, hoping to see a familiar face, but no one appeared. I continued to stand or sit there for hours each day in the hope of seeing someone from my family, but in vain. I was depressed and entered the home only when Grandfather called me to eat, but I had no appetite. Grandmother understood the situation and tried to alleviate my fears by saying that my old family would probably visit me during the day or tomorrow. This of course did not get rid of my depressed feelings but it showed me that someone cared.
Needless to say, I was very happy when a member of my family visited and brought a gift from the old home. They always promised to visit me as often as they could to cheer me up, for they saw my red and swollen eyes. They tried to visit often, and indeed everybody visited me except my brother Avraham. He went one day to buy bread and disappeared, never to be seen again. The visits always ended in sadness, for I was left alone with my depressed feelings.
The family visits continued for a while and then suddenly stopped because everyone was gone. My mother Cila Akselrad went to purchase food, where she was caught and shot in 1943. My father Bendet Akselrad was shot on 15 July 1943 in the concentration camp of Szebnie. My brother Shmuel, his wife Clara, their daughter Irenka, and Shalom were caught in Warsaw with faked Aryan papers and killed. Avraham Akselrad survived the concentration camps and managed to reach New York, where he passed away in 1991 after a lengthy illness. He never had a family. My brother Yehuda joined the partisans and fought with them until 1943, when he was killed in the vicinity of Warsaw. My brother Levy was killed in Krosno in 1943. Thus I was the sole survivor of the family in Krosno and lived with the Polish family. The war ended in 1945 and nobody came to take me home. My entire family apparently had been killed and nobody was left except for me. I was very sad when at the age of 13 I became aware that I was the only survivor of my family.
I missed my parents and brothers and kept dreaming about them. I saw them almost every night in my dreams and was very happy, only to awaken to the bitter reality that I was alone. I helped in the house with everything that I could, since I tried to please everybody in the family. I was always afraid that I might be kicked out of the house. This fear lingered and frequently prevented me from sleeping.
Slowly and steadily I became attached to the Christian family and became more familiar with them. They worried about me and were constantly fearful that an informer might reveal my existence to the Germans. I remained in the house with the grandfather and grandmother while the couple went to work. My new home was located in a rural area in the vicinity of the Krosno airport, but still there was fear that someone might spot this young girl in the courtyard. The Krukierek family decided that the risks of being exposed were serious and took necessary steps. They began to shift my hiding place. Sometimes I slept hidden in a straw bed in the attic. Others times I was hidden in dark places that affected my vision on seeing light.
On nice evenings, I would emerge and play a bit in the wheat field. Some evenings, Grandmother would give me a basket and send me to pick potatoes. I dug the potatoes by hand in the dark so that no one would see me. I picked the big ones and left the small ones in the ground so that they would continue to grow, as Grandmother Veronika instructed me to do. I would return with a basket full of potatoes and then clean them before entering the kitchen. Grandfather was pleased with the work and would always say that I had earned my keep for the day and would give me an extra heavy slice of bread. I was very proud of my achievements and gladly accepted these compliments. Grandfather was rather economical with his compliments, thus I relished it when I received one.
Potatoes and cabbage were the standard food of the day for the family. Sunday was a special menu that consisted of potatoes, cabbage, and rabbit meat. The latter were raised on the farm next to the cows and roosters.
During the day I tended to the daily household chores. I always volunteered to do extra chores in order to ingratiate myself with the family. The fear of being rejected was always on my mind. I did all the chores with devotion for I craved attention. I wanted to be accepted. Thus, I was very busy in the house, for Grandfather had a leg injury and limped, while Grandmother was weak and tired easily. The young couple left for work early in the morning and returned home late at night.
In addition to the regular household chores, I also mended clothing, helped prepare the feed for the cows, and did many other kinds of work in the house. Of course, there was less work during the winter when the fields were covered with snow, and I spent my time in hiding in the cowshed. The weather was freezing. I passed the time talking to the rabbits and roosters. It seemed to me that they answered, but I was not sure if I heard them. I was very lonely and continued to talk to the small animals, for I had no friends.
This was a difficult period, for the Germans increased the intensity of their searches and my adopted family was seriously frightened by the new policy. They even considered throwing me out. I was terrified and could not fall asleep for fear of winding up in the street. Grandmother cared a great deal for me and stated that she would assume full responsibility for my protection. Furthermore, she stated that she would leave the house if I were thrown out. Grandmother’s threats worked and she saved me. She asked her son Kazek to hide me at the mill where he was a guard. The sawmill belonged to our family prior to the war but was now owned by a German named Schmidt, and Kazek watched the place. He built a hiding place and one night took me from the house in a bag of sawdust.
The hiding place was under a wood floor amid sawdust. Kazek’s brothers also worked at the mill. They all had married and left the household. Only Grandmother, Grandfather, their daughter Jozefa and her husband, and myself lived in the house that was near the sawmill. Kazek brought me to the hiding place and gave me instructions how to behave during the day when the Polish workers were at their jobs. He also showed me how to position myself in the hiding place so as not to arouse suspicions. I could not sit, move, or turn in the dark hiding place. During the day it was still bearable but at night it was frightening. I kept dreaming about my dead parents and brothers. I had a premonition that they were all killed. I did not want to dream but could not help myself. The dreams continued and I always awakened to stark reality. Rats occasionally walked over my body and I could not do a thing about it, for there was no room for my hands to move. I was left with the terrible feeling of the creatures walking on me.
For several months I continued to sleep in sawdust under the wood floor. Autumn was approaching and with it came the rains. Everything was wet and dreary. Cold weather became a reality. Still I had to stay in hiding during the day for fear of being spotted by a worker or by a customer who came to buy wood. Only at night could I slowly venture out. As a result of my hiding position, I could barely walk. I was depressed and the thought of ending my life frequently crossed my mind, but I was a coward. I did not divulge these thoughts to Kazek for fear of embarrassing him after all his efforts on my behalf.
Winter approached and the family decided to return me to the house. They still hid me here and there but within the house, for it was bitter cold outside. I also became accustomed to my new Christian family and realized then that I would never return to Judaism. I no longer wanted to belong to the persecuted and humiliated Jewish people. Grandfather always told me that the Jewish people had always been persecuted throughout history. Even the Arabs were killing the Jews in Palestine. I heard and saw all these things. I saw how Jews were being persecuted while the Christian children played and had fun. I felt jealous and ashamed at having been born a Jew. These thoughts persisted and became stronger as time passed.
Suddenly, the roar of shells shook the entire area. The Russians shelled the area prior to their advance and for several days the cannon fire could be heard, and then silence. The area was liberated but nobody came to take me home.
I wanted to be like all the other children, namely Christian. I wanted to be accepted and not shunned. The family encouraged me in that direction. Eventually I loved the family and became very attached to them. I also decided to convert to Catholicism; this pleased the family and gave me further security at home. I went to the priest in Krosno and asked to be baptized. He was very surprised and told me that he had known my father. He asked whether there were any survivors in the family and I replied that I was the sole survivor. The priest baptized me on 5 September 1945, and that same month I started school for the first time.
I was admitted to the seventh grade in the elementary school, for which I was prepared by a private teacher, since I had to make up a great deal of schooling. I excelled in my studies since I devoted myself to schoolwork. I was a very good student and easily made friends. I tried to make up for all the lost time that I was locked up and felt a certain compensation for all the years spent in terrible deprivation. I finished elementary school and received a certificate. I was registered to continue schooling the next year. Meanwhile I enjoyed the summer recess, during which I met with my friends and took trips with them.
A Second Separation
A high-ranking Polish officer named Yeshayahu Drucker appeared at our home during the winter of 1945. He was a representative of Rabbi David Kahane, the Jewish military chaplain of the Polish Army. His mission was to return Jewish children hidden in Christian homes to the Jewish fold. He devoted himself to searching for surviving Jewish children who lived with Polish families and returning them to surviving members of their families or placing them in Jewish orphanages. He spoke to my new family and then to me about traveling to the Jewish orphanage in the city of Zabrze. I refused, since I was determined never to return to Judaism or to abandon the Christian family that I now considered my own. I stood my ground and refused to budge.
My brother Avraham had survived the camps and slowly recovered from his poor medical condition. He became aware of the fact that his sister Berta had survived the war and lived with a Christian family in Krosno. He appeared in 1946 with Drucker at our house. My brother, of course, knew the Krukierek family from before the war. They spoke to me about traveling to the Jewish orphanage in Zabrze but I refused. I even refused to talk to them. I left the house and hid in the bushes until I was certain that they had left the house. Then I returned home. I did not want to join my brother, since I was attached to my new family and did not want to leave them.
Avraham saw that he was getting nowhere and decided to petition the court for custody, since I was a minor. The court heard the case and forced me to stay with my brother at the orphanage in Zabrze for a period of two weeks. The family presented a huge bill of expenses for my upkeep during the war years to my brother. The bill had to be paid to the court as a deposit in case I did not return to the family. My brother did not have the necessary cash but he assigned his share of the family property to the Krukierek family if I did not return to their house. My share was untouched since I was a minor. Then the court began to implement the decision.
The separation was very painful since I did not want to leave the family and travel to the orphanage. The family was also reluctant to let me go and stated that only parents could change the status. They told me not to worry and that they would get me back one way or another. I left with the certainty that the family would retrieve me.The orphanage was aware of the situation since I was not the only Jewish child retrieved from a Christian home. They kept us under strict surveillance. I was very homesick and wrote letters to my adopted family but never received a reply. They also wrote letters to me, but I did not receive them. Of course I knew the reason but could do nothing about it. The orphanage knew that the Poles would try to return me to the family, so they stopped all correspondence between us.
The orphanage soon sent me with a transport of Jewish children to France, where I remained for two years. I then went to Israel in 1948. I was sent to the agricultural school Mikveh Israel to study the Hebrew language. During the process I adopted the Hebrew name of Batia, which was close to my original birth name of Berta. I stopped using the Polish name Basia. I was drafted in 1950 and three years later I married. I have two married sons and four grandchildren. I live in a private home at Kiriat Ono and tend to my garden and house. I spend my time attending lectures and reading books.
I continued to write to the Krukierek family and even now maintain correspondence with the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the family. Jozefa died in 2002 at the age of 92. I assisted her with whatever I could. I continue to correspond with the younger members of the family who do not even know me. But it is important for me to maintain contact with my past.
Translated by William Leibner from manuscripts written by Batia Akselrad Eisenstein on 4 January 2008 and 8 June 2008.