the jewish orphanage in cracow

by Roman Rosdolsky
(Translated by Diana Rosdolsky)

Roman Rosdolsky, the Ukrainian Marxist scholar best known for his Making of Marx’s Capital, left a moving memoir of his stay in Auschwitz, which was published in English translation in Monthly Review in January 1988. He also wrote another memoir with reference to the Holocaust originally published as “Das jüdische Waisenhaus in Krakau” in Arbeiterzeitung, 15 April 1948. It appears below in an English translation by his granddaughter. (John-Paul Himka)

During the first months of the war I lived on Dietel Street in Cracow. It was a street that had the character of a boulevard with many lovely trees. For many hundreds of years it had separated the old, squalid suburb of Kazimierz, mostly inhabited by Jews, from the actual city of Cracow.

I had rented a room from a Jewish merchant at 62 Dietel Street. The Jewish orphanage of Cracow, which housed approximately two hundred poorly clad children of different ages, all of them with very sad eyes, was right next door to me at 64 Dietel Street. Perhaps I would never have noticed the proximity of the orphanage, had the wall of my room not separated us, and had that wall not been so pathetically thin that I was forced to listen to almost every word spoken next door. I was thus an involuntary witness to the daily life of the children whom I heard as they had their lessons, prayed, did gymnastics, played, and generally made a racket behind the wall. At the beginning I was not at all happy about this proximity since the constant din disturbed my reading. Yet with time I resigned myself to the inevitable and even began observing the orphans’ habits with some curiosity and listening to the unfamiliar sounds of Yiddish or even Hebrew, a language I did not understand. After all, I was unemployed and the days of my forced leisure didn’t seem to be coming to an end.

The monotony that weighed upon our lives was suddenly interrupted by the horror of the first Judenaktion, which Governor-General Frank had ordered in the beginning of December 1939. Some weeks prior to this all the Jews of “Franconia,” as the General Government was derisively referred to in the circles of the Polish intelligence, had been ordered to wear the Yellow Star: a sanction, which back then seemed to many to be the outermost limit but which, as it soon turned out, was only in preparation for a greater number of other actions that were finally to  extinguish almost the entire Jewish population of Poland (and of many other European countries).

On one of the first days of December, I looked out of my window in the early morning and was astonished to see members of the Schupo[1] on the opposite side of the street, their backs turned towards me, seemingly equipped for the field and standing at intervals of about ten steps as far as the eye could see. I anxiously got dressed and ran outside to the street. There I saw something that I will never forget. The entire suburb of Kaziemierz was surrounded by the Schutzpolizei, which made sure that not a single Jew left the suburb. Countless Schupo patrols were walking not only along the right side of Dietel Street but in all the side streets as well. With the assistance of the “Aryan” mob, which had by that time accumulated, they were driving Jews who had either been forced out of their apartments or detained on the street across Dietel Street and into the suburb of Kazimierz. Some of the Jews took off their armbands and tried to escape without being recognized as Jews, but they were usually discovered by the Polish accomplices of the Schupo and chased onto the left side of the street with much shouting and jeering. There, a Jewish “Wailing Wall” was in the meantime being erected. Along the walls of the houses old Jews stood motionless with raised arms – for hours until it occurred to one of the Schupo to let them go. Others crept on all fours along the pavement and were forced time and again to drink out of the puddles. Yet others were forced to use their jackets to clean the dirty boots of the Schupos. It was a day the likes of which the old city of Cracow hadn’t seen since the pogroms against the Jews of the Middle Ages, a day of disgrace and humiliation – not only for the victims of the infamous Judenaktion, but perhaps even more so for those who as “Aryans” had the dubious privilege of being excluded from all this. Two Wehrmacht officers even stopped next to me on the street, observed the hideous show that was being given, and walked away shaking their heads, obviously disgusted…

That day all remained strangely quiet in the Jewish orphanage. There were no lessons being held, no gymnastics, no games – the children only cried quietly to themselves, and I could see their pale faces pressed against the windows and their calm, scared eyes observing the things going on below that they could not understand.

What we saw that day in Dietel Street was, however, only a prelude to the actual Aktion, which was to begin with the onset of night in the suburb of Kazimierz. As soon as the street lanterns were lit, the police patrol marched along the small streets of the town, from one house to another and from one apartment to another, shamelessly plundering and looting, taking with them whatever caught their eyes. Men were beaten, women and girls often forcefully undressed, and the floors in the apartments torn up to enable the police to look for hidden treasures. Soon there was wild shooting in the suburb, which was to die down only the next day. The loud wailing and lamenting of people who had been abused could be heard increasingly often. But – oh wonder! – at that same hour I suddenly heard behind the wall childrens’ clear voices singing in German:

Be embraced, ye millions,
This kiss to all the world!
Brothers, beyond the stars,
Our kind father dwells.[2]

Perhaps it was only one of the usual singing classes to begin the school day, or perhaps the children had struck up this marvellous song on their own – who knows?

Soon afterwards I had to leave Dietel Street 62 because it was confiscated for one of the countless bureaus of the General Government. I was thus no longer near the orphans. Many months later, however, I saw them again. The Jewish population of Cracow was just then being forced to move into the ghetto in Podgorze on the opposite side of the river Vistula. It was by chance that I was able to observe the children of the orphanage, the older children pushing wagons with a few wretched pieces of furniture, the younger and even very small ones carrying desks and chairs. Yet this time there was no laughing mob to accompany them. The Gestapo jail of Cracow and the concentrations camps were by this time devouring hecatombs of victims and the Polish people were bleeding to death in an incomparable battle – who would have dared to mock the misfortune of others? And thus the orphans walked in silence and unnoticed along the very long Starowislna Street towards the bridge over the Vistula.

Another year passed, and I also wound up in the claws of the Gestapo. In Auschwitz, in the concentration camp, there were many children – Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, but, most of all, thousands of Jewish children who were forced into the gas chambers. The Jewish orphans most probably were among them, and there was no father above to rescue them. In the storage barracks thousands of children’s shoes were piled up and our Obersturmführer Sauer ordered the Capo to select a pair of nice, little shoes for his son Ewald. Those of us permitted to continue living and who were forced to witness the children’s death grew increasingly grim and bitter even though most of us still loved our fellow human beings and perhaps even believed in a good father above.

Since that sad time some years have passed. In the cities and villages of Europe there are thousands and even millions of pale, hungry, and cold children. What will their future be like? Will they at least be spared the horrors of war and totalitarian terror?

[1] Acronym for Schutzpolizei (“protective police”).

[2] Seid umschlungen, Millionen,
Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!
Brüder, überm Sternenzelt
Muss ein guter Vater wohnen!