I had the absolute honour and pleasure to meet with 91 year old Maria Lewit who lived in Poland through World War 2 after the country was invaded by the Nazis. Below are snippets of what she told me during our chat but having read her autobiographical novel, Come Spring, it doesn’t come close to describing what she and her family faced during that time.
For many years Maria has been a volunteer guide at the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Elsternwick. She is available on Monday afternoons to talk to groups of students and other visitors about those times so many years ago.
Maria won the Alan Marshall Award in 1978 for “Come Spring”, and the 1986 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for its sequel “No Snow in December”. She is published in literary journals, anthologies, and newspapers. In 2011 she was awarded an Order of Australia Medal “for service to the Jewish Holocaust Museum and Research Centre as a volunteer and to literature as a writer and educator”.
I was born in Poland on the 2nd July 1924 and the Second World War started in 1939 when I was 15. Poland existed as a free country between the First World War and the Second World War. Prior to this it was divided between our neighbours Russia, the Austrian/Hungarian Empire and Germany and this is the country in which my father and my grandparents on one side were born.
My father was a Polish patriot and I was amazed how many books in Polish language we had. It was incredible because they were not allowed; we were in the Russian zone and those who went to school had to speak Russian language only. So he knew Russian but he loved Polish language.
Not everyone had a radio to listen to but we had a radio. My father knew languages because he was studying before the First World War in Germany and he knew Russian and Polish. The largest Jewish population in Europe was in Poland.
Before the war started he was listening to the radio and I said to him “dad why are you listening to this voice, this horrible voice?” It was Hitler, it was well before the war and he said “listen, I want to know what’s going on. I have to know”.
When the war started on 1st September 1939, straight away the German army came to Lodz, an industrial town, in the first two weeks. The Nazis were moving through the frontier and they were just taking part of Poland one after another one. The Mayor of Warsaw was appealing to young people “help us to defend Warsaw”. And all of a sudden my father got up and my mother said “what are you doing?” and he said “I am going to defend Warsaw”. We lived on the fourth floor, he went down, we followed him and the whole width of the street was covered by young men and students and my father was among them. And I was thinking “so this is what war means, that all of a sudden my father says goodbye to us” and he disappeared. I saw a waving of a hand and that was it.
Then my sister, who was meant to be going to a friend’s house to study, asked my mum “will I be able to go and study now” and mum said “don’t worry about friends and about your studies, have a look, your father left us just now”.
A couple of weeks later he returned to us at night time and by then Lodz was already occupied by Nazis and I was thinking “so what does it mean?” It means that during the war we could be happy too, all of a sudden my father has come, the return of my father. And he said to us “don’t touch me I am dirty, I have to wash, I have to go to sleep, I am terribly, terribly tired, I’ll tell you all about it later”. And my mother, my sister and I, we thought “isn’t it terrific that he’s back home. So war is not so horrible after all”.
He wasn’t very well when he cam home, he was suffering with dysentery. Then my father told us they were captured and they said “the Polish boys could return to their families, Jews are going to stay here. Can you see this forest in front of you? In front of the forest there is this opening space, you go there lay down and do not move”. So they went. My father went with this group and they were lying down. It was autumn in Poland; the days were beautiful, the nights were very cold and they were lying there and the Nazis were walking “do not move, stay as you are, we’ll tell you what to do”. And towards the evening water arrived and they put water in small bottles and they said “do not move we are preparing water for you” and they started putting water into their hands. The next thing they said to us “so now you have your drink, so now we want 10 Jews go to the forest and we’ll tell you what to do”. The rest of them stayed and they heard 10 shots then nothing and then they said “10 Jews go into the forest” once again 10 shots. And another one. My father was saying that it was so horrible and they were thinking “so this is the end of us, I didn’t even say goodbye to you”. And they went to the forest, 10 of them, and 10 shots and next to him was a school boy and he went to him and he said to him “are you alive” and he said “yes” and he said “what do we do” and my father said to him, “give me your hand, we are returning home”. And this is how they returned home and this is how it happened that he was sick.
My father started feeling a little bit better and he said to me “Maria, have a look at our house, we have so many things and I can tell you they could take everything away from us but there’s one thing that no-one can take away from you, it is the things that you experience and the things that you learn. So remember, listen to your teachers, listen for a change because that can never be taken away from you”.
When the Nazis came to Lodz they changed the name of Lodz to Litzmannstadt and they said they were going to take our town and we wanted to leave. I was going to school and I wanted to learn everything but all of a sudden the Nazis came and they took over the first 2 floors. So all the girls started carrying things from floor to floor.
One day when I was at school our headmistress came to our class to get me and my mother was there to tell me my father wasn’t very well. An SS man had come around and said to my mother “I heard that your husband is not working” and my mother said to him “my husband is very, very sick”. And he said “what do you mean sick, don’t you know that every Jew is sick when is asked to work but you know I have a very good remedy for Jew’s sickness, you will see, he will come with me to work”. And his remedy was he went to my father’s bedroom, he grabbed him from the floor and he said “you are coming to work with me, you lazy Jew” and he was hitting him until my father collapsed. The following morning he died.
This was the end of my childhood. Shortly after we left Lodz and we went to Warsaw. My mother wasn’t Jewish but because she married a Jew she was Jewish, according to the Nazis, and she was to be treated in the same way as any other Jew, which means very, very badly. But she had a sister Aleksandra who was living 16 kilometres from Warsaw who said “what are you doing, why are you going to Warsaw, come and stay with us”.
We lived with them for a short time and then my mother, my sister and I lived in the Warsaw Ghetto. There were half a million inhabitants, it was cut off from Warsaw proper, one and a half square kilometres and at its peak it had half a million Jews. I remember when we moved in my mother bought something from a shop and a child ran to her, grabbed it and straight away put it in his mouth. I said “mum have a look at what he is doing, he has stolen our food” and my mother said “Maria, don’t pay any attention, we still have something to eat, this child hasn’t, he’s hungry, let him be, don’t do anything”. It was such a wise thing to say.
We stayed in the Warsaw Ghetto; I had my pre-war teacher there along with 5 of my friends. Our teacher met with us one day and she said “girls what are you doing with yourself?” And we said we were helping provide soup for poor people plus we are meeting from time to time. She said “I want you to come to my place and I am going to teach you because you are wasting your time”. The echo of what my father told me about listening to my teacher went through my mind. Never in my life did I want to learn as much as I did then. But she was risking her life because to teach Jewish children was punishable by death. When I tell it now to students of today in Australia they just can’t believe it – that to teach is punishable by death.
I remember one day at the market place people were buying vegetables and I heard noises and people were standing watching. There was a Polish policeman holding a Jewish child, shaking him, “you smuggler, you will never smuggle in your life again” and he was shaking and the little boy who was barely dressed and who had stolen carrots and potatoes and the Polish policeman was shaking and the people around, including me, were standing and watching. I just couldn’t believe it. I thought “what shall I do, shall I go and help” and I thought he would start to hit me if I did and I won’t return and what will my mother think. All of a sudden a German in uniform appeared, he went to them and hit the policeman and he let the child go and this German in uniform picked up the child, sat it on the wall, the child disappeared over the wall and this German in uniform ran to the stalls, grabbed potatoes and carrots and threw them over the wall. And then he disappeared.
I say to the students who visit the Museum that it is my obligation to tell you about it because I came to a realisation that not every German was a Nazi and that when a man was drafted into the Army, he had to go.
At the beginning of 1942 Maria, her sister and her mother left the ghetto and with four other relatives lived in hiding in the countryside with Maria’s non Jewish aunt Aleksandra. They stayed there until the war ended in 1945. For risking her life and saving the family, Maria’s aunt was later recognised by Yad Vashem in Jersualem as one of The Righteous Among the Nations.
My husband Julek was my uncle’s brother in law, my uncle’s wife’s brother. We met when we were children and married while we were in hiding, with our family as witnesses.
I was 21 when my oldest, Joe, was born. I was so frightened that we might have another war that I said to Julek “darling, I want to be away, I don’t want to be in France, I don’t want to be in England, I don’t want to be in Poland, I want to be as far away from Europe as possible”. And my husband was of the same opinion. We came to Australia by boat in January 1949, it took us 5 weeks and we came to Victoria. Joe was so happy, we had a chicken, a dog and a cat. I didn’t know English at all; it took me a long, long time to learn. Seven years after Joe was born I had Michael and he is the first Australian of our family.
Relatives had a poultry farm in Reservoir and they sponsored us to come to Australia. People we knew said we should buy a milk bar because it’s a wonderful business. We bought a business in Tooronga Road Malvern, however we were not good business people at all. When the weather was nice, I would close the shop and take our children to the beach because I wanted the boys to have some fun.
After that we had a cake and sandwich bar in the city, in the Block Arcade. Compensation we received paid by the German Government helped us put a deposit on a block of land, and we built a house in Moorabbin. We lived there for 30 years and it was terrific. Joe went to Melbourne High and Michael to Moorabbin High and Brighton High. We had good friends living around us. Joe married, then Michael got married and they were living in Brighton. In 1992 Karin and Michael said “listen, we have a very good idea, we saw two houses next to each other in Hampton, what about if we live next to each other. It will be easier for us and it will be easier for you, you will have us next to you”. It was such an incredible idea and I love living here. I’ve seen lots of changes.
My husband, Julek, had dementia and he was in a home. I was going there every day and he died there in 2005. He loved music and we bought him a little radio and some headphones and he always smiled when he listened to music.
Going to the Holocaust Museum means a lot to me. I go on a Monday afternoon and talk to the students and talk about what we went through and tell them how lucky they are that they’re living in Australia. The majority of schools are non-Jewish schools. One of our directors found out that an aboriginal called William Cooper took a petition to German Embassy, objecting to the treatment of Jews in Europe. Can you imagine? We have a plaque dedicated to him in our Museum and when I saw it for the first time I cried.
Yet there are still such tragic things happening now in the world, all over. Every day I open the newspaper and see it and I can’t believe it is still happening…
Maria still lives in the same house in Hampton next to her son Michael and his wife Karin. She will be 92 in July.
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