About the Author
Naomi Samson lives in Baltimore. Kenneth Jacobson is the assistant director of the Anti-Defamation League. Joseph Samson, a practicing attorney, is Naomi Samson’s son.
Read an Excerpt
After three years of humiliation and slow torture by the Nazis inPoland with the help of many Polish gentiles life for us, the Jewishpeople, was rapidly coming to an end. Cities and towns werenow being emptied of Jews. The German word Judenrein, whichmeans "cleansed of Jews," was heard more and more often. Jewswere being sent to camps by the masses, never to return. Peoplewere constantly looking for places to hide, to run away from thefrequent "roundups" for deportation. The atmosphere was thickwith gloom and fear. Forgotten by the rest of the world, we, thechosen people, it seemed, were now chosen for torture, humiliation,and finally death at the hands of the murderers.
One of the darkest days in my life was November 2, 1942. The nightbefore, as in the previous couple of weeks, my mother had draggedus children down into our hiding place through a trapdoor in thekitchen floor, because Judenrein was inevitable. The SS, the Gestapo,and the German soldiers, with the help of many Polish collaborators,would usually attack at night, killing many Jews on the spotand rounding up the rest for the camps.
"No more hiding," said my oldest sister, Chaya-Leeba, on thatnight. "Don't you all see? It's no use we cannot escape an armyand so many willing Polish people who are eager to help point outthe Jews. So why not die with some dignity, the way Father taughtus before they killed him three weeks ago? Daddy was a great man,and I will soon join him."
With tears in her eyes, my mother took the rest of us kids down mytwosisters, Perele and Janice, my brother, Josh, and me. I wasthe youngest, nine and a half years old. At dawn Mother said,"Well, it seems we may be safe for another day," and we came upand closed the trapdoor.
This old house in the town of Frampol, Poland, was full ofpeople, including us, who had fled from many places. We had fledoriginally from the town of Goray. As each of us started finding hisor her nook on this cold November morning, we were all shockedto hear and see trucks full of Germans with helmets and machineguns. Wasting no time, they jumped off the trucks as they werestill moving and began shooting at the Jewish people at random,yelling, "Get over there! Line up, you cursed Jews!"
People started to scramble. Pushing, shoving, trying to run awayfrom the rain of bullets. There was so much confusion and so littletime to think which way to run. While still near the house, we hadto step over people who had been shot. They were screaming andbegging for help. Young women on the ground, bleeding, clutchingtheir babies, were crying out for someone to help them. Butnone of us could afford the luxury of giving these poor souls even afew seconds, because all of us were in the same situation.
Soon we reached the gentile section of town, but still there werefierce-looking German soldiers with machine guns chasing afterus. By this time it seemed that they had a planned pattern. Theyknew the areas where the Jews would try to escape, and they surroundedthose areas. We ran through the mud and jumped overfences into the fields, which were freshly plowed and very difficultto run in. My mother kept shoving me over these high woodenfences, and I kept getting weaker from being thrown over andfalling on the ground. At one point I realized that my mother wasquite a distance away, my sister Perele was also ahead of me, andthey were the only people from my family now running near me.My only thought was that I must not lose sight of my mother andPerele, or I'd be dead and they wouldn't even know where I died. Inmy panic I screamed at the top of my lungs, "Please, Mama, please,Perele, don't leave me here alone to die!"
Mama couldn't hear me. She was a little farther ahead than Perele.The shots and the screaming of so many wounded people weredeafening. Perele heard me and slowed down so that I could runwith her. Our hands kept pulling apart, so she said to me, "Holdonto my coat pocket, Naomi, our hands are slippery."
As I grabbed hold of her coat pocket, I caught a glimpse of mymother, who was still running ahead of us. She would turn for asecond and motion to us to hurry up. There were so many peoplerunning, falling to the ground screaming when bullets would hitthem. The sound of the machine guns, held by those fierce-lookingGermans with helmets on their heads, was unbearable. As we kepton running, we came upon more wounded people on the field andmore dead bodies that we had to step over. The wounded werewhimpering and begging for help. Several times on that day Iwould be faced by helmeted Germans about to shoot me, but bysheer luck the machine gun would be turned away from me towarda bigger crowd. Suddenly, Perele fell to the ground. I felldown with her, thinking she wanted those Germans near us tothink we were dead. Then she said to me, "Dear one, I've been hit bya bullet in my leg, I can't run anymore. You, child, get up quicklyand catch up with Mother."
"You get up!" I yelled at her with anger, as if to say, What are youdoing to me? "Get up and run with me!" I yelled again.
"I can't anymore," she said, "but you, Naomi, you can still run,so waste no more time. Maybe someone from our family will surviveto tell about these horrors; maybe that someone will be you."And she pushed me away.
I remember turning my head back toward Perele while runningagain, this time alone. I hesitated for a moment, thinking, "Whatshould I do now? Should I die now, near Perele, or continue untilI'm shot and killed?" I hoped I wouldn't just be wounded, to die afearful death out here in the muddy field, the way Perele and somany others were now dying. Perele lifted up her head and wavedat me to continue running. I saw her right hand touching a bodylying by her side. Her face was flushed; she looked so beautiful.What did her words, "survive to tell about these horrors," mean?No one would survive that day, especially not little me. No moreThinking I had to continue to run.
Now the ground was covered with many more people, and fewerwere running. The shooting was still fierce, and I ran on with allmy might. Suddenly, at a distance, I saw my mother! "Mama,Mama!" I cried.
At first she couldn't hear me. Everybody still alive was screamingsomething. Most people were calling to God, begging for help.I, too, was crying to God, "God, what is happening today? Is this theend of the world? Please help me!"
Finally I caught up with my mother, and she took my hand.
By this time it was late afternoon. We couldn't see any moreJews or Germans, but we could still hear some sounds of gunfire.We kept on running, only more slowly. After a while we began tosee a village, houses that gentile people lived in, and children playinggames and singing songs, like my friends and I used to do. Mymother ripped off her armband with the blue star of David on it. Iwas panic-stricken. "What are you doing, Mama? You know thatJewish men and women have to wear an armband with the Jewishstar, so that the Germans can easily identify us, and if you take it offand they catch us ..."
"It doesn't matter anymore, child. Jews are no longer permittedto live, with or without an armband," replied my mother.
With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I turned to my motherand asked, "Mama, how come these children are playing gamesand are not afraid of being killed, but I am?"
"Don't talk so much," said my mother. "Keep walking a littlefaster."
"Mama, look at those girls. They are just like me. They are playingskip-rope and other games and singing the same songs myfriends and I used to sing when we were still allowed to live. Whyare they free to sing and play, while I have to keep running and hidingfrom the Germans?"
"You know why, child. You are Jewish and they are not," saidMama. "Walk a little faster, Naomi, or we'll be dead a lot soonerthan you think."
"But Mama, what's wrong with being Jewish? You and Daddyalways taught us that to be Jewish is to be good to others, to beconsiderate of other people, to say my prayers to God every morningand every night. I have been doing just that, and I never hurtanybody. I'm only nine and a half years old, and I haven't had muchtime to do many good deeds. Why then, Mama, must we die onlybecause we are Jewish?"
"I don't know, child. Don't ask so many questions. We are notsupposed to question the Almighty. It seems he decided our fate.No more questions, just keep walking as fast as you can."
Then Mother said, "We have to get into the forest, because thesechildren's parents might drag us into town to be killed by the Germansso that they can collect a bag of sugar for each of us. That isthe reward the Germans are giving to help clean out Jews." (At thetime I couldn't quite comprehend what she meant, but it becameclearer to me about three months later, while in hiding. Welearned that my mother's only sister and her husband were foundhiding, and they were brought into town tied up with rope for theGermans to kill them. The two village boys who brought them inwere rewarded with two bags of sugar.)
I stopped asking questions and walked along with Mama untilwe were deep in the woods and it was quiet at last. But the gunfirewas still ringing in my ears, and the expressions of pain and fear onpeople's faces were still with me. Now we stopped.
"Let's lie down," said Mama. "We seem to be safe for now." Mymouth was dry and hungry, my lips parched. Exhausted from thislong day, I lay down on the ground very close to my mother. Sheput her arm around me and I felt her squeezing me tight as I fellasleep, pretending our nightmare was over. But our nightmarewas to go on and on for two more years.
The early morning sun was piercing through the almost nakedtrees as I awoke and tried to open my eyes. As I tried to move awayfrom my mother, all parts of my body were aching. My mouth andthroat felt dry and painful, and my lips were chapped, but I managedto sit up. My mother didn't move. Her eyes were still closed,and her face looked very sad. I touched her a few times, and finally,she sat up.
"Mama, what will happen now?" I asked. She just looked at mewith sadness. "I'm hungry, Mama, and I'm also aching, and I'mcold. What are we going to do now, Mama?"
Again my mother looked at me sadly, and tears came runningdown her cheeks. "I don't know what we are going to do, child," shesaid. "Our whole family is probably dead they were all killed. Allthe Jews we knew are now most likely dead. It's just you and mehere in the wilderness. I envy the dead. They do not have to dieagain the way you and I do."
I panicked as my mother again talked about dying. "But Mama,we don't have to die, we can live right here in this forest forever. I'llnever complain again." I was shivering as I looked at Mama. Shedrew me close to her, and we both wept uncontrollably for sometime. Then my mother noticed some wild berries in the distance.She pointed her finger toward them and told me to go get them. Ipicked for a while, but then I realized that my mother must also behungry, so I picked a handful of these berries and brought themto her. I spent the rest of the day looking for more berries. Thereweren't many berries left in November, and I was scared to go toofar away from Mama we mustn't lose each other in the woods.
Late that afternoon my mother said that when it got dark wewould leave the forest and try to reach the village of Zagrody,where a family by the name of Chmelinsky lived. Mr. and Mrs.Chmelinsky had some of our valuables that my father had entrustedto them to keep them safe from the Germans. Mother saidthat he was an honest and decent man. "Maybe he will help us."
"That's great," I said. "We are not going to die, after all!"
My mother started looking around, trying to figure out whichdirection was the right one for the road to Zagrody. When it gotdark, we started walking. It seemed we walked forever before wesaw the houses of the village of Zagrody. My mother knockedon the window of Mr. Chmelinsky's house several times before hecame. He opened the window, looked at my mother and me, andthen crossed himself. "What! You are alive, Mrs. Rosenberg? Andthis is your girl?" He asked.
"This is my baby girl, Naomi. She's hungry and cold. Please, Mr.Chmelinsky, help us hide somewhere. You can keep our belongings.Please do it for this child's sake. She is scared to die, and shehas really not lived very much."
I stood there and prayed to God that this man would have pityon us and help us.
"Wait right here. I'll be out in a minute." He walked away fromthe window, and I saw two of his daughters, about my age or so,standing with their mother's hands on their shoulders. How I enviedthem! When he returned, Mr. Chmelinsky led us into a barnpacked with hay. He told us to push ourselves in near the wall asmuch as possible, and he said, "I'll be back soon."
We pushed away the hay as much as we could and sat down. Hereturned with a pitcher of milk and a chunk of bread. We gobbledit up in no time. While we were eating, he took his lantern anddisappeared. "Let us say our nightly prayers," said Mama. We saidthe Shema together in the dark. We felt so grateful for this nookin the hay.
But it didn't last. At dawn, while Mama and I were sound asleepagainst a wooden wall, Mr. Chmelinsky started shaking us. "Getup!" he yelled. He handed us winter clothing from our family'shidden belongings my brother Joshua's herringbone coat for meand a wool shawl for Mama. Then he told us we must leave.
"Please, please," we begged him. "You don't have to feed usmuch," said Mama. "We will be no trouble to you. Just let us stay,and we'll be very quiet. No one will ever hear us."
"Get out immediately," he said, "or I'll kill you myself!" And hepulled a gun from his jacket pocket. "I'm not going to risk my lifehelping Jews. Out fast!"
He pushed us out of there and told us never to come near hisproperty again. As my mother cried and begged some more, hepulled the trigger and we heard a shot. Each one of us thought theother one was wounded as we ran with all our might. We realizedthat he was serious about killing us if we didn't leave him alone.
Once again we were in the woods, sitting on the ground watchinganother day begin. With my brother's coat on me and with Mamanow wearing her woolen shawl I was more hopeful that mymother would think of another good plan to survive. "Mama, whatwill we do now?" I asked.
"Tonight we will try another village, called Zastavia," she answered.
When the sun went down once again, my mother had to decidewhich way to go out of the forest to get to Zastavia. When we gotto Zastavia, Mother once again knocked on the windows of peopleshe had known for years. In one house a young woman came to thewindow, and when she saw us, she yelled to her husband, "Zydy[Jews] get up and kill them!"
We ran as fast as we could, then hid behind someone else's housefor a few minutes. When we were able to catch our breath, we continued.But we ran into more and more bad luck. Finally, a gentilewoman opened her window and gave us a bowl of cold potato soup,which we ate in no time. When my mother asked her if she wouldhide us, she quickly responded, "Mrs. Rosenberg, you and yourlittle girl are Jewish, so you have to die. But we will not risk ourselvesin helping Jews. Jews must die now, not us."
With that she grabbed back her bowl and shut the window. Nearher house was a large haystack. My mother got an idea. "Let's tryclimbing to the top of this haystack and coveting ourselves withhay." It took us a long time to climb up, but we made it. While wewere climbing up that mountain of hay, I saw the woman staringout of her window, watching us. No sooner did we get settled thanwe heard someone crawling up after us. "Well, once again it's theend," I thought. It was the woman's son.
"Hey, Jews, let me take you into town to the Germans and I'llget a bag of sugar for each of you. You know if we help find Jews weare rewarded with sugar and sugar is hard to come by. You will dieanyway."
"Get down from there, and don't you have a hand in killingpeople!" yelled his mother. "Let others clean out the Jews!" Then sheshouted, "And you Jews get down and run or I will let him kill youright here!"
Needless to say, we ran with all our might until we found ourselvesin the wilderness once again, this time in the middle of thenight. "Mama, what are we going to do?" I asked once again.
My mother was quiet for a long time. I looked at her face to seeher expression. It was a dark night with few stars in the sky. Thetrees were tall and there were so many of them. They made me thinkof the German and Polish guards who had surrounded our hometownghetto in Goray for the past three years. Suddenly, my motherspoke. "Listen to me, my child," she said. "We can't go on like this.We will either die of starvation and the animals will eat our fleshhere in the woods, or someone in these villages will kill us. I havedecided we should walk to our hometown, Goray, which is abouteight or nine miles from here, and give ourselves up at the Jewishcemetery. That way we will be buried with other Jewish people."
"No, no!" I cried. "I will not die this way or any other way! I wantto live, Mama, I don't want to feel bullets fired in my head or body!Bullets are hot and they burn a person's insides and it hurts badlyuntil the person is dead!"
"Don't think about that part," Mama said. "Think about heavenand all our family. We'll all be together. Think about your friends,your sisters and brother, all the people in our town who are waitingto greet us in heaven. Think about that."
"No! I will not be killed! I refuse to die, Mama!"
"Stop crying like a baby. I can't take it!" said my mother.
So I got up and I walked away from her and sat down with myback against a tree trunk. I was angry at Mama, but I was evenmore frightened now, because I sensed that my mother's mind wasmade up.
The next day was just as hard as the day before. I looked forberries, but there were few. I was cold, thirsty, and hungry, andoh, was I scared! But, most of all, I was now very angry with mymother. We didn't speak all day. At night we tried again to getsome help, but time after time we experienced the same bad luck.Either people tried to catch us and bring us to the Germans forsugar, or they just tried to kill us on the spot. This went on for severalmore days. And every day Mother talked about that cemeteryin our hometown, Goray, and I wouldn't hear of it.
At one point I told my mother, "Go get killed at the Jewish cemeterythe proper way. I'll stay here by myself."
"You can't," she said. "Don't you understand, child? We can'tescape a whole German army, plus the Polish people who are helpingthe Germans wipe out every last Jew."
"But, Mama, this war will end and the Germans will lose, Daddysaid so many times."
"That is true, Naomi. The Germans will lose, and they will sufferand pay for all the horrors they are causing now. But we can'toutlast them and survive."
For about four or five more days, I kept fighting for life withMama, while every day we grew weaker, colder, and more thirsty,but less hungry. I would put wet leaves on my lips and tongue tosuck up the dew. Finally, I too thought that death was the onlyway. So with much fear and sadness, I turned to my mother andsaid, "Let's go and die with some dignity at the Jewish cemetery inGoray."
It was a cloudy afternoon, and a thin snow was coming downwhen Mother and I, hand in hand, started walking toward Goray.It seemed to me we walked for hours. No one bothered us. I, wearingmy brother's coat, and Mama, covered with her shawl, musthave looked like any other mother and child. I had no more fear inme, no more feelings either. We just kept on walking.
Suddenly my mother stopped. "Look, Naomi," she said, pointingto some houses off the road. "This is the village of Lada. We usedto have many gentile friends in this village. In this first housestraight ahead live the Kowaliks. Dear friends. Let's stop in to seethe Kowaliks. We have nothing to lose anymore," said Mama.
So we got off the road and walked straight toward their house. Itwas getting dark outside. We walked into a hallway that led to thedoor of the Kowaliks' kitchen. My mother just opened the door andwalked in. When Mrs. Kowalik saw us, she yelled out loud whilecrossing herself, "It's you, Faiga Rosenberg! You, you are alive! Youare not a ghost are you?"
"Yes, Maria Kowalik, I'm not a ghost yet, and this is my youngestdaughter, Naomi. Can we sit down?" asked my mother.
"Sit, sit? she answered.
It was warm in her kitchen, and the food on the stove smelled sogood! Four of her seven children were in the kitchen, staring at us,as Mrs. Kowalik brought over some milk and bread. "Eat and drink.You both look awful," she said.
As I ate the bread, I was thinking of how we would soon be killedat the cemetery, and the food just wouldn't go down my throat. Mymother was telling Mrs. Kowalik that we were the only ones alivenow from all the Jews in Goray.
"No, you are not the only ones. Two days ago your sister and herhusband were here, and I fed them too."
My mother's face came alive. "What, my only sister, Hudel, andher husband are alive? Where are they? Are you hiding them, maybe?Please tell me!"
"No," said Mrs. Kowalik. "I sent them on their way like I'll askyou to leave now, too. I can't risk my family to save Jews. It's a terriblewar!" And then she opened the door and asked us to leave.
As we walked out of her house, I expected that my mother and Iwould continue our walk to Goray to our death. But instead, mymother said to me, "I have an idea. Don't ask any questions. Juststay with me and do what I do."
Mama took my hand, and quickly we walked toward the Kowaliks'barns and stables, about three hundred yards from the house.There we crawled under a wagon near a wall and sat down. Myheart started racing again with hope. But I kept quiet. About twohours had gone by when Mrs. Kowalik came out with a bucket tomilk the cows. Mama pulled me by my hand and we went over toher as she was milking a cow.
"Jesus Christus!" Mrs. Kowalik yelled out. "You keep scaring thelife out of me! What are you still doing here? My daughters, Wlatkaand Juzefka, will be here in a minute to help me milk the cows, soyou'd better be on your way!"
"We have no place to go to," Mama said. "If you don't help ushide, we are just going to give ourselves up in Goray to die. Ourlives are now in your hands, Maria Kowalik. Please don't have thischild's blood on your conscience. Please hide us somewhere here!"
Excerpted from HIDE by NAOMI SAMSON. Copyright © 2000 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.