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The life of a child

By Alex Orli

Dedicated to my beloved sister, Clara Kramer

I was born in 1934, in the city of Zolkiew in Poland (East Galicia), a region that is now within the borders of Ukraine.
Approximately half of the residents of the exciting city of Zolkiew were Jews, and my family was well off.

My grandfather owned a factory that produced oil and my father was a furrier. My sister Metuka was born in 1939.
The city had a Hebrew school and all of the Zionist movements that sprang up at the turn of the century were represented.

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, life as we had known it there was suddenly cut off. The city was first occupied by the German army, which then retreated in accordance with the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, and the Russian army entered the city in their place. The Communist regime was harsh and oppressive, especially with respect to the wealthier residents, who were called bourgeois exploiters of the proletariat. They were arrested and exiled to Siberia and even killed in N.K.V.D. interrogations.

My grandfather was killed in the N.K.V.D cellars in Lvuv and another part of the family was exiled to Siberia and so had the good fortune to escape the Nazi extermination.

In 1941, when war broke out between Germany and Russia and the city was captured by the Germans, the residents thought that their “saviors” had come. My father Tzvi was forcibly conscripted into the Russian army and was killed in the German bombing of the retreating Russian army. My mother Rachel, my sister and I were left on our own.

Very shortly after the Germans captured the city the Aktzions began. Jews were caught and sent to extermination camps, while others were sent to labor camps. My mother performed acts of heroism and found hiding places for her children during the Aktzions.
The ghetto was set up in 1942 and all of the Jews in the city and its surroundings were forced to move into it. The ghetto was built in the center of the city, which contained the Jewish Quarter and the famous Synagogue that had been built by the greatest of Poland’s kings, Ian Sovieski.
Hunger, fear of the Aktzions and the outbreak and spread of typhus claimed thousands of sacrifices throughout the existence of the ghetto. My mother managed to get some food from outside the ghetto, from Christians who knew her. With her heroism she managed to keep us alive and we were lucky not to fall ill, and thus survived.

In the final Aktzion my mother found a hiding place for us in the attic of the Judenrat headquarters. She found bread, a little jam and a pail of water for us that the Germans had distributed before the Aktzion, and told us to wait there until she returned.

At the same time as the events described above another part of the family, together with two other families, dug a bunker under the floor of a bedroom in the house of the Melman family, where they hid during the Aktzion. After that, the families persuaded the Polish Christian Mr. Beck, who was Volks Deutsch and who had worked for them in the past, to request the house and to live in it with his family. The idea was that they would hide in the bunker and in return for payment he would provide them with food, until the war was over. They innocently believed that the war would end quickly.

When they destroyed the ghetto, the Germans let about 50 young Jews live, including my mother and he brother, and forced them to “clean” the ghetto.
In the evening, when their work ended for the day, despite the prohibition and the danger involved, my mother decided to come to our hiding place and her brother decided to go with her, but their luck was such that a German control group that had entered the ghetto caught them and killed them both on the spot.

Dudiu Weber, a relative of ours who worked in the cleaning group and knew what had happened, suddenly appeared in our hiding place and told us that he would smuggle us out of the ghetto.

Dudiu chose Sunday, April 11th 1943, when the Christians would be in church. He positioned sentries from among his friends in the group, cut an opening in the fence and sent me and my sister to a house in which a part of our family and two other families were hiding – 16 people. I knew my way around the streets of Zolkiew and how to reach the house to which Dudiu had sent me.

I was eight years old and went with my three-year-old sister to the Melmans’ house. I asked my Aunt Sara Schwartz to take us in. Beck was shocked, because if someone had chanced to see us at that moment it would have meant a death sentence, not only for the 16 Jews hidden in his house, but also for him, his wife Julia and his daughter Ella.

Before the war, I had played in these streets with the Polish Christian children, who knew me. A look at our faces left no doubt that we were Jewish children from the ghetto,

Beck recognized us and knew that my father had been killed and that my mother had been murdered in the ghetto, but his first reaction was to deny that my aunt was in the house. I asked him just to take care of my sister, saying that I would join the partisans in the forest. Something made him take pity on us. He brought us up to the attic and then went down to the bunker to tell the people hiding of their our arrival and to consult with them about what to do with us.
The anxiety that took hold of everybody was awful – discovery of the bunker would mean a death sentence for 16 people. The two families refused to take the chance and decided not to allow us to go down to the bunker, so my aunt Sara, her husband Meir and their two daughters, Carla and Mania, decide to join my sister and me. But Beck made the final decision. He was a devout Catholic and decided that the children would join the others in the bunker, maintaining that, “if the children who had gone through the death of their parents, the Aktzions and the ghetto and survived… – it was a sign that God wanted them to be saved.”

Together with the others we stayed in the bunker 18 months, in conditions of perpetual hunger, anxiety and exposure. We were always afraid that someone would inform on Beck, who had to buy food in larger quantities that he needed for the three members of his family. He wandered among the towns in the district, buying food for his pigs. The evil nature of the Christians was another cause for informing.

A week after I entered the bunker, a fire broke out in the oil factory that was located only a few meters from out hiding pace, and the roof of the building caught fire. Terrible panic took hold of the bunker’s occupants, who were faced with the dilemma of choosing being burned to death or dying of smoke inhalation, or leaving the bunker. Many people gathered to watch the fire so that we would be in danger of being caught by the Germans, which would mean certain death. Mania, Clara’s dear and only daughter became terribly frightened and said to my uncle, that is her father, ” Papa, I’m leaving… .” She was caught by the Germans but, despite cruel torture, she didn’t reveal our hiding place.
Some time later one of the rooms was sequestered by the German army and soldiers were billeted there. When they were in the room we had to maintain absolute silence and we were petrified with fear, lest they should detect a sound and discover us.

In 1944, the city was liberated by the Red Army and we learned that of the approximately 7,000 Jewish residents of the city only 49 survived.
In 1945, at the end of the war, we moved with out aunt and uncle to West Poland, a region that had previously been occupied by the Germans.
At the end of 1946, agents came from Israel to gather children from the monasteries, from hiding places and from Christian homes and to arrange for their passage to Israel. They promised that the children would be sent as part of Immigration A, with certificates issued by the British.
Together with my sister, I joined a kibbutz of the Hanoar Hatzioni movement. The reality was otherwise: there were no certificates and we began an exhausting journey from place to place by foot. We “stole across” the borders between Poland and Slovakia, Austria and eventually Germany, where they placed us in a permanent camp for a very long period. Later on, we learned that the camp had been used by members of the SS and Aryan women to produce a pure Aryan race.

I the spring of 1947, they began to speak of immigration to Israel and in fact in the summer of 1947 I traveled with the other members of the kibbutz to France, with the aim of boarding a ship for Eretz Israel. It was my fate, together with that of 4500 other immigrants, to board the immigrant ship named Exodus 1947. The tale of heroism of the ship is well known.

When the British sent us back to Germany, to a camp located near Hamburg, my sister found my uncle, Meir Schwartz, who had arrived there via Poland and Austria. He removed me from the camp and took me in as a member of his family.
In the summer of 1949, I came to Israel, together with my sister and my aunt’s family. They placed us in a camp for immigrants. Guides of the Zionist kibbutz learned of our arrival, came and proposed to my aunt and uncle that we be placed in the Hadasim children’s village that had been set up in a cooperative effort by the best psychologists and pedagogues. In 1946, Hadasim had been created as part of a plan to take in and rehabilitate holocaust children. I joined Hadasim and for the first time in my life studied in an orderly educational facility. I learned agriculture but, above all, I thank Hadasim for the emotional and physical rehabilitation that has guided me through my adult life.

The village fulfilled its mission, rehabilitating many holocaust children from their traumatic past and returning them to normal function.
In 1952, I was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli Air Force. I served for 30 years and was discharged with the rank of colonel. I am proud of my three daughters and eight grandchildren.

Following my discharge from the IDF, I turned to the business sector, establishing a private company that dealt with aviation maintenance, and other manufacturing companies, etc.
In 2001, I decided to leave all of my business activities to give me more time with my family.

At the same time, several Air Force officers who live in Rehovot approached me with the request that I join a child survivor’s organization. Up until that time, I had relegated the subject of the holocaust to the sidelines and even refused to speak about it. Despite this I joined the organization, albeit without great enthusiasm, but the activity and work that I invested during the years 2002-2006 brought about a significant change in my thinking and I devoted all of my time and energy to the survivors whose rehabilitation, unlike my own, was unsuccessful and who now lived in the physical and psychological pits.

In 2006 I was elected to the position of Chairman of Yesh, Organization of Children and Orphans Holocaust Survivors in Israel and I served in that capacity for 5 years. I was also elected to the position of Deputy Chairman of the center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel. During the performance of this function I had the priviledge of handling, together with my fellow members, the negotiations with the government of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and of obtaining many benefits for all holocaust survivors in Israel.

I was chosen to serve as a member of the Directorate of the Claims Committee, which was charged with handling negotiations with the Germans to improve the conditions of holocaust survivors throughout the world.
I owe my life and my achievements to the members of my family who survived the holocaust and supported me. My story would not have been published were it not for their great dedication and determination to protect me, and the endless love they showered me with.

To the memory of my dear ones and those who saved me
My parents Rachel (Uchka) and Tzvi Orland
My grandmother and grandfather Lea and Shimon Reitzfeld
My grandmother and grandfather Zisla and
Zisha Mandel Orlander Weinbaum
Dudiu Weber
My aunt and uncle Sara and Meir Schwartz and
their daughter Mania Schwartz

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