Dr Dasia Black grew up in Nazi-occupied Poland, and has been a lecturer in child and adolescent psychology and the psychology of racism at ACU for much of her professional life. This is an excerpt from her recently published book, Letter from my Father.
I sometimes thought about my mother and father and what it would be like when they came and picked me up after the War. Then one day a man I did not know but who may have been a relative, came to Tarnopol. He told Sabina and Yaakov and me news that I heard but didn’t really understand. He said that both of my parents were dead. Dead. Both Mother and Father. How could that be? All he knew, he said, was that they had been killed and that he was to come and tell us.
Sabina and Yaakov wondered how it could have happened. Did they run away from the ghetto and try to hide in the forests? I ran to find my very favourite toy, the little white ball I had brought with me. But I could not find it. Where could it be? Now I had nothing from my home. I could not talk and neither could I cry.
I knew that I might get into trouble and make them angry if I cried. It was better, safer to stay silent. But now what would happen to me? Who would care for me? My parents had promised to come and fetch me after the war but now they could never come. It was so frightening. I was still a little girl. If there was nobody to hold and take care of me, I might stop being alive.
I tried not to think about it and went on playing, being an extra-good girl so that they would still want to look after me. I understood that when I fell, I had to get up by myself.
Time passed and new things were happening. Tarnopol was being bombed by the Russians. Often in the evenings we heard the piercing sound of the siren and all the people in our block went down to the shelter in the cellar to wait for the All Clear. One person did not come. It was still not safe for Yaacov. He stayed upstairs alone. I hated leaving him there.As the bombing raids became more frequent, there were changes in how people behaved.
The grown-ups in the cellar were more excited and talked more. They spoke of how the Nazis were being forced back and the Russians were coming closer. One night the bombing was so heavy Yaakov came down to join us in the cellar. As he entered Sabina quietly said:
This is my husband. Nobody made any comment.
It seemed the time for talk had ended. A bomb hit the building. The ceiling above us collapsed and the walls of the cellar cracked. Bricks and wood fell all around and on top of us until we were half-buried in the rubble. But soon we realised we were alive and that no one had been hurt.
Then the panic started. Who will find us? Is there enough air for all of us? For how long? This went on all night. At dawn we heard voices, people above digging, calling out and digging some more. Finally a few Russian soldiers managed to make an opening and found us sitting huddled together. Daylight streamed in. How wonderful!
Russian soldiers, very young, approached. They ordered us to stand in a row. They went right up close to our neighbour, the Nazi informer, and took her away. Then one of them approached Sabina and pointed a gun at her head. Hadn’t she been a friendly neighbour to the Nazi informer? Sabina grabbed me and pushed me in front of her, showing me off.
This is the Jewish child whose life I had saved by sheltering her all through the War. How could I be a friend of a Nazi?
The soldier moved on. I watched both him and Sabina, feeling both puzzled and proud. Suddenly it seemed that it was all right to be Jewish. Adults often behaved in odd ways. We clambered out of the rubble and into the open. We looked around and found that the buildings next to ours had also been bombed. Everywhere was in ruins. Broken pieces of walls framing arches and rectangular spaces which until yesterday had been windows and doors now exposed chairs and beds and burnt curtains. Underfoot was shattered glass. But the Nazis had gone. We had been liberated.
The next few weeks were full of wonder. At six years old I felt that there was less danger in my world. I was beginning to understand that now it was safer to be Jewish. Tarnopol was in ruins but I didn’t mind. They made a fantastic play-ground, with so many good places for climbing and cubby houses and playing hide-and-seek. The days were getting warmer. With another little girl, I ran in and out, up and down among the blocks of stones wondering what they had looked like before the bombing.
I knew that Stasia was not my real name and that the name my parents had given me was Jewish. But, strangely, I had forgotten it. The other little girl and I would sit on top of a pile of stones trying out different names to discover which one sounded familiar. Was I Rachel or Ilona or Danka? No, I didn’t recognise any of these. They were not me. I tried so hard to remember, even at night before I fell asleep. But I just could not remember who I really was.