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Dear Diary - a diary from the Warsaw Ghetto

When George Golvan's granddaughter recently embarked on her roots project for school, little did she know she would stumble across a diary the family had never seen before. It was written by George's mother, survivor Helen Golvan, immediately after the war, and is a rare testimony of her time in the Warsaw Ghetto. It has since been translated from Polish by the Jewish Holocaust Centre and archived by Yad Vashem. This is Helen's story.

DECEMBER 5, 1945

Right at the beginning of the war I decided to write a diary, but somehow, it did not work out. Just as well, I would have had to, like with many precious souvenirs, leave it to the vagaries of fate, i.e. fires, which burned in the "ghetto", our houses in which we had lived all our lives, people dear to us who perished in the fire, but I don't wish to get ahead of events and will write in order, beginning at the start of the war.

Piotrek, with many others, was mobilised on 23 August 1939. I have spilled so many tears accompanying my fiancé to the station. A funny thing though that, notwithstanding my despair, I managed to feel sorry for another couple, also saying "goodbye". He was already on the train, and she was hanging off his arm and simply would not let go. She had a brand new wedding band on her finger; they had probably just got married. Piotrek's last look was on me and it expressed bottomless despair. And then the fever of the last pre-war days started. Piotrek would write to me daily letters in which he tried to comfort me, saying that there would not be a war, that we would see each other soon and would always be happy. And that's how it was until 1 September.

Clockwise from left: Piotrek Golvan in the Polish army; Helen Golvan’s diary written in Polish; Helen and Piotrek.Clockwise from left: Piotrek Golvan in the Polish army; Helen Golvan’s diary written in Polish; Helen and Piotrek.

1 September 1939 and German bombers appeared over Poland, dropping the first bombs. The war proceeded at a lightning speed. The Germans grabbed one location after another, but our Warsaw held on. We were completely surrounded and that is when the hell began. Bombing during the day and artillery at night. The sight of it was horrible; all around buildings were burning and collapsing and on the street masses of corpses, both human and equine, abandoned valises. People escaping from their burning homes carrying bits and pieces, were shot on the street.

It was virtually hell on earth. Our house, luckily, although damaged, did not succumb to the flames and many unfortunate people would gather there. The building where Piotrek's mother lived also fell victim to the fire, leaving her with just the dress she was wearing. Our home too started burning; there was no water to put it out; men tried to extinguish the fire on doors and window frames. G-d's grace saved our home that time – it did not burn down. At that time another incident occurred and it strengthened my faith in G-d. I ventured to my aunt's place to get some bread, as we did not have any food. She gave me a sufficient quantity for which I was still thanking her as I was on the staircase, longer than good manners required, which prolonged my descent to the courtyard by one or two minutes and when I was just about to exit the building, there was a huge boom.

As it turned out later, an artillery projectile had exploded in the courtyard at the very place where I would very likely have been, had I left a moment sooner.

DECEMBER 3, 1946

Years pass inexorably, and I did not write a thing all that time, because it is so hard to write about all of that. I will not describe facts but will be writing from now on about my life in order of events.

At the end of September following horrible bombing, Warsaw fell, looking like a horrific battlefield, surrounded by fire and ruins. In our apartment, like everywhere else, there was not one whole window pane left. Daddy blocked the window with plywood, and trips to the Wisla for water started; not a thing in town was functional: there was no power, water or gas. It was a long way to the river and the small vessel, in which the water was carried, was very heavy. I would go to get the water with Joziek and Daddy.

Once we secured our apartment, we started thinking about making money and we calculated that a dental supply shop would be good as it allowed profits and indeed, for the times, we lived well.

In the meantime, people were losing means of making a living, losing jobs and starting to sell their possessions. Poverty began spreading. The Germans were issuing new regulations regarding Jews' dispersion daily. Those dispersion regulations further ruined already ruined people. Until one day, quite suddenly a new rule was issued for Jews to wear a white band with a sign of Zion on their right sleeve, which identified them as Jews and enabled the Germans to catch them on the street and assign various works to them, as well as beating them mercilessly. Our neighbour's son was caught and ordered to clean faeces with his bare hands. People started running away en masse across the [River] Bug, as the Polish areas on the other side were occupied by the Russians. The escapees were mainly young, as they were the ones to fear the Germans the most. My brother wanted very much to run away too, but Daddy, crying, begged him not to abandon us and, unfortunately, Joziek stayed. From my boy, who had gone to war, there was no news whatsoever. As I found out later, his family received news that he was not alive, but they did not inform me and so I was living in a constant, desperate ignorance. Until, one day, a card arrived from a prisoners' camp, with Piotrek's signature, saying he was alive and well. It is hard to imagine our joy. Later, letters started arriving from him to which I would reply at once. He, however, did not receive them, and kept writing, desperately begging for a reply. All of a sudden, the Germans started releasing Jewish prisoners of war from the camps and, towards the end of March, 1940, Piotrek returned. We then decided to get married, but in Daddy's opinion (which was the general opinion too) the war would be over soon and we should wait. It cost me a lot to get Father's permission for our wedding, but we had to look for accommodation elsewhere.

On 7 July, 1940 we were married. I remember that day; the weather was beautiful, the sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky. I did not have a white dress, as I thought that it was inappropriate during a war. I was wearing a navy blue georgette dress and a short veil. I was very tearful during the ceremony, as if I was predicting the tragedy that indeed followed.

It was difficult for us in the beginning but, somehow, one lived. And in Warsaw, events kept rolling on. Towards the end of October, 1940, the northern suburb of Warsaw was closed and became a Jewish ghetto. All the Jews living in streets not enclosed were ordered to move in and the exits from the streets enclosed were blocked. Some were left open, but under the care of gendarmes from the German and Polish police. Nobody had the right to leave the ghetto; people were living crowded, closed in and the possibility of making a living disappeared altogether.

The same thing was happening all over Poland; in the large cities ghettos were formed and from the smaller ones people were brought into the large ones. Because of the hunger and the horrible sanitary conditions, typhoid started spreading rapidly, decimating people. Those who were not dying of starvation were dying of typhoid. On the streets one could see daily naked corpses which the families had thrown out on to the street, not having the means to bury them and those nameless people had to be buried by the Jewish authorities in common graves. At about that time also both Piotrek's mother and his sister died of typhoid.

The Germans were treating the Jews increasingly badly. There are cars on the roads from which they beat Jewish passers-by on the streets.

The situation is such that some people earn a lot, eat the best food, whilst others starve. The situation has reached a stage where hungry young kids grab from people's hands packages or bought bread and whatever they grab, they eat on the spot, so it cannot be taken back from them, occasionally creating comical moments, like when the parcel contains soap or something else and they shove it into their mouth. The Germans who were counting on starving the Jews in the ghetto, believing that they would get only what was on the food coupons, which is four kilograms of bread a month per person and a bit of marmalade, have miscalculated as other food is smuggled into the ghetto, with the permission of bribed gendarmes.

The German authorities start trying various combinations, constantly reducing the size of the ghetto, which causes even worse crowding. There are ever-increasing numbers of gendarmes at the gates, trying to choose the worst bandits for this job: among others there is one so-called Frankensztajn, who supposedly cannot eat his breakfast if he has not killed a few Jews first; he stands there, treating people like rabbits, it's scary to go past him.

One way of smuggling into the ghetto: Poles throw things to the Jews over the wall, through various dugouts, but all this cannot stay hidden for long; they are always found out and there are always victims when the gendarmes drop in, but the desire to profit is always there, some of the smugglers are killed, the others keep working to be caught another day.

And at precisely that time, something much worse "explodes", something that ruins our lives. It started with a horrible terror strategy, used by the Germans on the Jews – arresting the Jewish intelligentsia and executing them at once. People are afraid to sleep at home, one can feel a certain catastrophe in the air. And then, suddenly, one day, posters appear in the streets of the ghetto in which it said that the Jews would be resettled in the east for work, that people working in German factories, the sick and the ones working for the Jewish Council and their immediate families are not subject to resettlement. A great chaos arises; first, they take out people living, and then the non-working residents. People start trying to get employment at the factories and pay huge amounts for acceptance. The ghetto at that time is tightly surrounded by the German gendarmerie and nobody can get out from that hell except for the workers of the so-called placements, who work for the Germans in the other suburbs of Warsaw. Smuggling then stops completely and one can only buy bread from these workers who, returning, manage with difficulty to bring it in. Obviously, the price of that bread is exorbitant and, consequently, people are starving. At that time, a new announcement is posted stating that people who volunteer for the resettlement will receive 2kg of bread and 1kg of marmalade; people being resettled are allowed to take with then, in a backpack, only 20 kilograms, the rest is to be left behind. And so, unaware of impending death, people were waiting with their backpacks for resettlement, counting on that promised bread.

Helen Golvan (left) with her parents and siblings in 1929Helen Golvan (left) with her parents and siblings in 1929

For the time being, the Germans do not touch factory workers; they ship out orphans from orphanages. Leading one of these shipments was one great man – Janusz Korczak. The ghetto is being diminished daily and on the streets one can see carts of people relocating from one place to another … It looks as if they are moving in with friends or into apartments vacated by the "resettled" previous residents.

They then throw out the previous residents' furniture and bring their own instead. All the staircases are full of furniture and the luggage of these constantly moving people keeps growing, "enriched" by somebody's belongings. The time limit of voluntary resettlement passes and people start hiding and when there is a blockade, people retreat to various hiding places.

There are not enough people to fill the goods wagons and so they go into the factories and take out people working there. This is when people start to realise that everyone will eventually be resettled, but nobody realises that these wagons transport people to a place called Treblinka, where they will be gassed and incinerated, having taken all their belongings. The "blockades" last from 8 in the morning until 7 in the evening and all that time people sit in their hiding places and do not get out to the streets.

The "traffic" only starts in the evening. This situation lasts from July until one evening when it is announced that everybody must relocate to one block, not taking anything with them and leaving their apartments unlocked. Staying in one's apartment is punishable by death. When the "procession" of people were moving to the new destination, they were naturally carrying a heavy load, considered essential, not knowing what was awaiting them. In the morning, when everybody was assembled, the Germans, together with Ukrainians tightly surrounded those streets and the transportation started. The bigger factories sent for their employees who were indispensable for work and received only a limited number of people, the rest were sent away. This was when I lost my father and brother. Mother and Minia went back to the factory and so did I and my husband, although to a different one than my mother and far away from hers.

Only a small number of people got out of that blockade, the rest were sent way. It was horrible to watch the tiny children wandering in the streets, their mothers having been sent away, crying bitterly, and there were masses of babies' corpses on the street. And to think of the terrible pain which must have torn the mother's heart, having had her baby ripped out of her arms. But there was no time then for pity; everyone was thinking of their own life, egoism and the desire to live pushed away any feeling. I even saw some mothers abandoning their children voluntarily, knowing that it would be easier for themselves to survive without them. Eventually, after a few days it was over. People who managed to get out of there were allocated to factories and were living in allocated residential blocks. We received a terribly dirty, tiny room with hundreds of bedbugs. But it was meaningless then. We worked in a sewing factory where military uniforms were being patched. I worked as a seamstress and Piotrek did ironing. Our residential block was far away from where my mother was and to get there one had to walk through an area where nobody lived. We were able to go there once a fortnight, because that was our only free time. In the meantime, my sister got out of the ghetto and into the Aryan side to our sister-in-law who was there; however there was no trace left of that poor child after that.

In spite of the fact that we were allowed to work, we felt it would not last and we would be all resettled. Then a certain number of Aryans were sent to our factory to work, but they worked under completely different conditions – they would come in the morning to work an hour later than us and would go home earlier than us. Obviously, commerce bloomed, as Jews were getting rid of all their belongings in exchange for food products. The Aryans were doing extremely well in those transactions.

One day we came to the factory and heard the news that on that very day the Germans were to come to get a certain number of workers.

Then Piotrek wanted to escape with me, but the gates were closed and the Germans were expected in half an hour. He was running around like a trapped animal, trying to find a way to escape and, together with some other men, they found a door leading to the roof of some adjacent buildings. They managed to remove the door, we got out to the roof and from there we had to jump down to a neighbouring courtyard. I jumped straight into the arms of my husband, who, with super-human strength managed to catch me like a ball and stood me on the ground.

From there we ran through a few "dead" streets, risking running into Germans at any moment, which meant death. We stopped on the fourth floor of an empty building and sat there until late evening. As we found out later, five minutes after our escape, the Germans had indeed arrived and terrible things were happening in the factory. A few people were killed and quite a few escaped. After that blockade, we realised that we had to leave the ghetto as soon as possible.

Piotrek wanted, as a first priority, to send me out as, in his opinion, it would be easy for him to manage by himself. And so one day, it being 5 December 1942, I crossed, with a placement to the Aryan side on Marszalkowska Street. There, I said goodbye to my husband, as he was going back to the ghetto in order to send the remainder of our possessions to our acquaintance Wands Dzidziecki on Wolska Street. I was walking, as I was afraid that I could be recognised on a tram. I was terribly exhausted when I arrived there.

This is where Helen's diary ends. Helen and Piotrek survived the war by posing as Polish Catholics on the Aryan side of Warsaw. They emigrated to Australia in 1951.

This is an edited version of the translation by Sara Albeck

First published in the Australian Jewish News, 21 June 2019