Holocaust survivor recalls 2 years hiding in attic to mark Yom HaShoah
Israel Unger is speaking at Confederation Centre Thursday night
When other children his age were starting school, Israel Unger was living in a tiny attic room with his family, hiding from the Nazis who had invaded Poland.
Unger, a retired university professor who lives in Fredericton, is speaking Thursday night at a ceremony at Confederation Centre in Charlottetown to mark Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Unger was born in 1938, and was just 18 months old when the Nazis entered his hometown of Tarnów, Poland. His father was co-owner of a flour mill, but all his property, along with that of all Jews, was stripped away by the Nazis.
But his father was able to arrange with his former business partner to build a hidden room in the attic of the mill. The family — his parents, brother and two aunts — along with three family friends, nine people in all, moved into the room.
"When we slept there was just enough room for each of us to lie down next to each other," Unger said.
They remained there for two years.
'We would see German soldiers in the courtyard'
It was a tense arrangement.
The room next to the hiding spot was a workshop, and the Nazis took it over as a place to repair parts for trucks and light-armoured vehicles.
"I remember that we would be able to look out. There were gaps where the rafters met the walls, and we would see German soldiers in the courtyard," Unger said.
"We didn't know if they were there to come and get their trucks and vehicles or whether they were there because they'd been informed that there were Jews hiding in the attic."
Initially, his father had made arrangements with someone to bring them food once a week. But after three months, the food deliveries stopped.
His father, intimately aware of the layout of the factory, would sneak out at night to steal flour and barley. They had a hot plate, and the flour was mixed with water to make pita bread, and the barley to make a kind of soup. That's what the group lived on for the remainder of the two years.
As a five-year-old stuck in a tiny room and forced to keep quiet, there was a lot of boredom, but Unger said that is not his chief memory.
"Probably what I recall most, overwhelmingly, is fear, because we knew that the Nazis intended to murder every single Jew they could lay their hands on," he said.
"I was well aware of that, even as a young child."
They slept during the day and were active at night, in order to minimize any noise that might be detected. There was little to do, and there were no resources for medical emergencies.
"My brother, who was four years older than I, had terrible stomach pains. The adults felt he was going to die," he said.
"They discussed how would they dispose of the body when he did die. Fortunately he didn't die."
On Jan. 17, 1945, the Soviet Union drove the Nazis out of Tarnów.
"I also remember the day the Soviet army came into Tarnów and we saw them and we realized that our agony and our long nightmare was over, and rushing out to greet them," Unger said.
But the family's troubles were not over. Anti-Semitism was still rife in Poland. His parents felt they were not safe there, but no one was allowed to leave.
Then his parents learned that a group of orphans had been given permission to leave the country.
"My dad went to see the organizers of that orphanage and asked them if they would take my brother and I, and they agreed," said Unger.
They were on a train from Tarnów to Kraków the next day. Unger and his brother did not know if they would ever see their parents again, but they did manage to escape, and the family was reunited in Paris.
Then came the Korean War in 1950. Fearing another war in Europe, the family sought sanctuary in Canada.
In 2001, the old flour mill in Tarnów was demolished, and the hidden attic room was discovered. Pictures were taken for the local museum before the demolition was completed, and Unger has a set of them.
The fact that there is a rise in anti-Semitism is depressing, but you don't give up trying to fight it.— Israel Unger
"I think what amazed me was how small the area was and how rudimentary it was," he said.
Unger said he shares his story so that people will know the truth about the Holocaust.
"We do look at tragic events to try to prevent them from happening again. We learn from things. That doesn't mean we're always totally successful in preventing them," he said.
"The fact that there is a rise in anti-Semitism is depressing, but you don't give up trying to fight it."
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With files from Island Morning