It was a beautiful summer day in August. We were chilling out in the garden. Nothing indicated I would embark on a journey into an unknown region of Lviv. My grandmother looked at me with disapproval and said, “If you really need to know, I will tell you about my family. Just know, I am not fond of doing it nor want to remember.”
It was just the beginning of the story, however my curiosity arose 20 years earlier when I met her sister Gina in Chicago. On her tiny arm one could see the Auschwitz camp tattoo. Over the years nobody explained anything to me. I learned about the true beginning of the saga that summer afternoon in Wrocław, 70 years after World War 2.
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This story begins in prewar Lviv. Grandma’s parents, Henryk and Klara Spinner were running a painting framing business. My great grandmother handcrafted the wooden frames by herself. The golden elements needed to be delivered from Vienna, from the factory of her brother Jakob, the acclaimed Austrian gilder. Klara had a passion for art and owned a small gallery with paintings. Henryk was a glazier. Grandma remembered artists that came to their home, some of them became famous later. She also encountered the more recognized ones, including Wojciech Kossak whose paintings hung for some time on their walls at home. The family observed the main Jewish holidays and was assimilated in Polish society.
While scrolling through the old vital records from Lviv, I discovered that Henryk and Klara had different official names: Chaim and Chaje Ettel. When I mentioned it to grandma, she grimaced and said I was being too inquisitive.
Henryk (Chaim) came from Yavoriv, a picturesque place that grandma visited in summer. It was known for its ponds and horse stables. The Spinner family were farmers. In each branch of the family tree, there was one son named “Chaim”, following the Jewish tradition of naming children after a deceased grandparent.
Klara came to Lviv from Ternopil to take over the family business, a painting-framing workshop, that she inherited from her uncle Jakob Altberg (alternatively “Altenberg”), a known gilder. She grew up among many siblings in the wealthy, bourgeois Altberg family. She had four sisters and the brother Jakob in Vienna. Working professionally as a craftsperson, she was an independent and emancipated woman for those times. In comparison to Henryk, known for his explosive nature, his wife was an oasis of calm. It has remained an unresolved riddle why Chaje Ettel used the name “Klara” on a daily basis, particularly since one of her sisters was officially registered under the same first name. The second Klara and another sister Rozia lived in their hometown of Ternopil.
“At home, we spoke Polish,” grandma continued with her story, “only parents used German for confidential conversations when they didn’t want us, children, to understand.”
Grandma was born as Sabina Spinner in 1921 and was the third child of the family. The oldest sister, Regina, graduated from the law faculty and married another lawyer, Zygmunt Labiner, before the war. The brother-in-law was a Zionist and a sportsman active in the Hasmonea club. Zygmunt had taught grandma how to ice-skate.
The second sister, Fryderyka, suffered an accident in a park where she fell from a tree and died of meningitis before grandma was born. Her picture hung on the wall in an oval frame. “This type of frame was a rarity that required exquisite craftsmanship,” grandma explained.
When the war broke out, only the youngest brother Mieczysław lived with them at the family home. Once the Soviets arrived in Lviv, the idyllic times of grandma’s childhood evaporated. The inhabitants were persecuted and deported, assets were nationalized. The Lviv University, named after the Polish king Jan Kazimierz (John II Casmir Vasa), was converted into a Soviet school. Antagonisms between Ukrainian and Polish lecturers exploded. Ukrainian had become the official language of the university. Grandma’s year represented the last Polish generation that graduated from high school before the war. She attended a respected private secondary school for girls led by Miss Olga Filippi-Żychowicz. The headmistress was a good-natured woman that supported poorer pupils. After secondary school, grandmother started to study at the university in the new reality of the Soviet occupation. The friendships from the faculty turned out to be essential in her further life. Doctor Klinger was pictured together with my grandmother and her friends in the only surviving photo from the university. According to Yad Vashem, Doctor Klinger was denounced and executed after the Warsaw uprising of 1944. My grandmother remembered that students cultivated lice on their skin to support Professor Weigl in his study dedicated to inventing a vaccine against typhus. He headed a laboratory at the Lviv University and was named a Righteous Among the Nations in 2003 for giving employment to Jews to help them survive in Lviv.
The actual tragedy played out on June 30, 1941 when German troops entered the city. “We had been making preparations for weeks, buying food supplies. Ukrainians cheered at the sight of Wehrmacht soldiers arriving in Lviv. I don’t want to talk about it and would rather forget what happened,” she said.
Her world collapsed. Shortly after nazis came, the first pogrom broke out. The perpetrators were Ukrainian nationalists, Germans and street mob encouraged by German propaganda about Jewish guilt of NKVD crimes.
The grandma’s testimony was scarce in details, she limited her story to two facts. Her mother Klara was arrested on a street while she was heading to visit her daughter Gina and the recently-born baby girl Vilma. Klara was murdered in a prison on July 1, 1941. Her husband Henryk made frantic attempts to arrange the release of his wife. All in vain. Grandmothers’s father was murdered two weeks later. Yad Vashem collected a testimony about his death given by his acquaintance. Did the person witness Henryk’s last moments?
Films and photographs were taken by German soldiers admiring their “helpers” during lynching. The pictures show unimaginably horrifying scenes. Men and women were unable to escape from the crowd nor avoid being flogged with sticks or bars. Prominent Jews were forced to clean streets or toilets. Naked women with torn clothes, beaten and chased, ran for their life and dignity. Stones were thrown while the delighted crowd celebrated and applauded. Jewish victims were dragged through the streets of Lviv to prisons to be tortured and meet their death. That was the beginning of the end for Jews in Lviv. This is how the Holocaust began for my grandmother’s family. The first pogrom of 1941 resulted in a death toll of at least four thousand Jews, including her mother, Klara. Till the end of that July at least further two thousand Jews fell victim to the so-called Petlura’s Days. Her father Henryk was among them.
Grandma decided to flee. One of Klara’s sisters, Władzia Musiałowa lived in Kraków. The aunt, a scout leader in the prewar times, married a Polish officer. She was active in the Polish underground. Grandma’s university friend Bronia supported her in creating an escape plan while another colleague arranged Aryan papers for her. “I did sketches in biology for Sławek. His father had connections as a technician at the medical institute,” she explained.
Her blue eyes seemed perfect, but the hair needed improvements. Even though it was a common belief in our family that grandma’s hair, beautiful and thick, looked the prettiest in our city district. Still, it was jet black.
To reach the Aryan side, she needed to get on a train from Lviv to Kraków. The prewar childhood world, the faces of her loved ones were about to vanish forever. Grandma became blond and Joanna replaced Sabina who ceased to exist. Her life in Kraków was miserable. “I had no intentions to survive. I felt hopeless and devastated after what happened in Lviv. I didn’t know if and how I should continue to live. Bronia, my best friend, stood by me and encouraged me to continue with the medical studies,” grandma confessed to me.
At first, she slept at her aunt’s house. Grandma told me, “Władzia married a ‘goy’ before the war, a Polish soldier. She took care of my cousin Marta Graup whose parents weren’t well off, by taking her to Scout camps.”
The aunt, childless, feared that neighbors could denounce them, so she arranged a rented room and a job for Sabina. Still, Władzia insisted on grandma’s visits despite the fact that her husband went mad each time his wife’s niece came to their house. He yelled in fury that grandma was putting them at risk, urging her to leave and that he didn’t want to see her again.
According to grandma’s story, the medical studies continued in secrecy at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. Mieczysław, the youngest brother called Milek, was also hiding in Kraków. Grandma didn’t recall how he managed to escape from Lviv and who arranged the Aryan papers for him. She got employed in a textile shop in Bieżanów named “Rubin & Elbinger” at Miodowa Street 15 whereas Milek worked at the post office in Kraków. They stayed in touch. Mieczysław used the last name “Wasowicz”. One day he disappeared without a trace. Grandma attempted to inquire and search for him on her own. His work colleague from the post office promised to find out what happened to Milek. They made an appointment in a coffee shop in the center of Kraków. When she arrived at the meeting point, something didn’t look right. She peered through a window and noticed suspicious faces around Milek’s friend. It gave her a bad feeling about entering the place and she left immediately. Indeed, it was an ambush. Mieczysław got arrested by the Gestapo and was shot, allegedly when trying to flee. It happened close to his 19th birthday. The message about his death was conveyed to Sabina on a phone by an anonymous caller.
At one point, she was being blackmailed by a Polish policeman, who was introduced to her, while she frantically looked for news about Milek. The man threatened to report her to the Gestapo and demanded money in return for not denouncing her. Sabina had no money. Luckily, she bribed him with textile goods from her work. “A life in hiding was filled with distrust. It was dangerous to walk on the streets of Kraków or to be on a tram. People were accosting you, suspecting your Jewish identity. Once I got captured by a teenage boy that asked for money I didn’t have. I don’t recall how I managed to convince him to let me go,” she confessed. “Poles weren’t friendly towards us, Jews. Many were indifferent to our fate and some behaved very hostile. However, they were not as terrible as Germans. Those were difficult times. Somehow I managed to survive,” she concluded.
Grandmother met my grandfather on a train connecting Wieliczka with the center of Kraków. Marian was from Wieliczka. He and his friend purposely bumped into her while getting on a train. She was a beautiful girl. They started dating and going out together. According to family tales, my grandfather used to joke about his wife: “I gave my winter coat for her.”
One afternoon, they spent time together on a date. Grandma waited on a bench while Marian left to look for a coffee shop to buy some cake. Suddenly, German military trucks arrived. Wehrmacht soldiers blocked up streets around Sabina. Germans were capturing people trapped in the closed-up area. Men and women were placed in the back of the vehicles. Round-ups were the German strategy to acquire more forced labor but also to capture underground fighters and to track down Jews hiding outside of ghettos on the Aryan side. The fate of the detained Jews was doomed and usually played out on the hills next to the Płaszów camp where an execution squad was shooting everyone on the spot upon their arrival.
When Marian came back, he noticed that Sabina was gone. He spotted her in the back of one of the trucks guarded by Germans. Without hesitation, he took his chances and rushed to the armed soldiers. Speaking fluent German, he traded his winter coat to have his girlfriend released. It was their lucky day. It was the only family story I had heard before grandma opened up to me. Sabina stayed in hiding in Kraków till the end of the war, continuing to work in the same store with textile goods, studying medicine at the Jagiellonian University. In December 1945, she married Marian in the Wieliczka Catholic Church.
Gina, grandma’s sister, stayed a few weeks longer in Lviv than her sister. Her recently born daughter Vilma had been welcomed with enthusiasm into the family. Grandma recalled carrying the baby girl in her arms and how happy they were. The joy disappeared completely in the summer of 1941. The fear replaced the previous positive thoughts. Gina had a luxurious life before World War 2. The events of September of 1939 caught her by surprise. During good times, she traveled with her groom to Côte d’Azur in France on the legendary Orient Express train for their honeymoon. Every year she traveled with her mother Klara to Vienna to shop, spending a fortune, a habit that infuriated Henryk, her father. Moreover, a lot of money was spent on the wedding trousseau there. The luxury lifestyle vanished when the Soviets entered Lviv. Germans arriving in their home city deprived them of any illusions.
Zygmunt, Gina’s husband, got appointed a director in the Jewish hospital on Kuszewicza Street. The atmosphere was tense and horrifying. He bribed German and Ukrainian police by welcoming them with alcohol to delay the unavoidable extermination. When Henryk and Klara Spinner were murdered and grandma escaped from Lviv, Zygmunt arranged Aryan papers for Gina and Vilma. They followed Sabina and left for Kraków. When they arrived, they wanted to stay together with grandma in one rented room. However, the landlady got suspicious and didn’t agree to host them.
Eventually, Gina succeeded in finding a shelter at an apartment, living with a prostitute. Maybe that woman trusted her more than the other landlady or she simply needed money for rent. Gina pretended to be a wife of the Polish soldier, waiting for his return home. What fate was written for Zygmunt, Gina’s husband? Grandma looked at me with her deeply sad blue eyes and told me the story: “One summer day, cars with Germans and Ukrainians arrived at the hospital. Germans didn’t accept ‘useless’ people who were not able to work. First, they shot all patients, next they drove the whole hospital crew to Piaski and executed everyone, including Zygmunt.”
According to some historic sources, the massacre at the Jewish ghetto hospital in Lviv occurred on August 20, 1941, shortly after Sabina and her siblings managed to escape from the city. While Gina was in Kraków, living as a gentile, she didn’t hear anything about her husband’s death. She stayed in touch with brother and sister. A baker from the neighborhood seemed to be a very nice person and got friendly with her. After a while, he wanted to invite Gina for a date that she declined. Decades later when interviewed by the Shoah Foundation, she stated: “I rejected advances towards me, so he denounced me to the Gestapo. Did I look too Jewish?”
From the Gestapo prison, Gina and her daughter were transported to the Płaszów concentration camp. On arrival, they were recognized by a Ukrainian guard from Lviv who knew her husband. He ordered them to hide in the camp baths. Shortly after she could hear firing of machine guns. All the Jews that came with them to the camp were executed at the hills.
Daily life in the camp kept prisoners terrorized as the infamous camp commander, Amon Götz, had a fatal habit of shooting Jewish captives from the balcony in his villa. Gina recalled it as the period of doing hard, useless labor, being exposed to sadistic practices, being hunted down and witnessing death at all times. She testified about being beaten with a rubber baton and having recovered from typhus. A Jewish aid organization contacted her with a short message about Zygmunt’s fate and gave her an address in Kraków if she would ever make it out of the camp and survive. Gina worked while Vilma was kept in a children’s house led by another Jewish prisoner, Cyla Wiener. whose small son was also there. At night, grandma’s sister sneaked into the children’s home to nurse her baby girl.
At some point of their torment in Płaszów, camp inmates were condemned to stand endless hours at attention. Simultaneously, children were separated from the caregiver and packed on trucks. Furious firing of machine guns prevented their parents from following the vehicles as they left the camp towards Auschwitz. Cyla Wiener testified after the war that she decided not to have children ever again after she lost several hundreds of them in Płaszów. The camp museum documented that the horrific event occurred on May 14, 1944. Other survivors recalled the happening as the most painful moment in the history of Płaszów when they could hear desperate mothers lamenting.
Under those circumstances, Gina decided to take her own life by swallowing a Cyanide pill which she had prepared for an emergency. At night, her gentle mother Klara appeared in a dream. After waking up, she chose life.
Soon after Vilma was taken, Gina got transferred to Auschwitz. Her arm was marked forever with the camp tattoo. Seven times doctor Mengele looked at her eyes and motioned to her to join the side of life. After some time, grandma’s sister was sent to a linked camp in Czechoslovakia. In Lichtewerden, women were forced to sew military uniforms and carry heavy loads of cotton. The camp inmates needed to walk in hard, wooden clogs. A Jewish organization contacted grandma in Kraków and she provided shoes to be smuggled for Gina.
The new shoes caught the attention of camp guards. As a punishment, Gina was sentenced to spend outside on a December frosty night while standing naked. Her physical endurance and perfect fitness, acquired before the war in the Jewish sport club Hasmonea, saved her. She didn’t fall sick. In May 1945, a Russian soldier arrived on a white horse at the camp. This is how Gina remembered the liberation. She returned to Kraków and appeared at the address provided by the Jewish aid organization. Sabina, already named Joanna Grochowska, awaited her there. Out of 40 family members from the Spinner and the Altenberg clans from Lviv and Ternopil only six people survived: the two Spinner sisters; a cousin, Marta Chmura, who married a Catholic during the war; and another cousin, Marek Spinner. The aunt Władzia Musiał, who didn’t need to hide, lived in Kraków. Also the cousin Adele Altenberg from Vienna managed to escape with her daughter to London in 1938.
“I came to Wrocław on a freight train, sitting on coal,” grandma said.
Joanna and Marian continued to study medicine at the Wrocław Medical University. In one of her libraries, she kept old, dusty school books in German that they used with my grandfather to study for exams. She showed me a photo of them pushing a wagon filled with rubble from the Wrocław clinics as they helped to clean up the ruined buildings. After my grandma told me her real story of survival, family research has become my passion and even an obsession. While searching for new resources, I encountered the Polish film chronicles about the Wrocław clinics that pictured Professor Henryk Beck, an acknowledged gynecologist and a Holocaust survivor of Lviv, performing a surgery. Surprisingly, in the scene I recognized my grandmother among other students observing the medical procedure. In the next images, I saw her again using a microscope while her future supervisor at the pediatric ward was standing behind her. Professor Hanna Hirszfeld, the pediatrician and the wife of Professor Ludwig Hirszfeld, a microbiologist, was also present in the film. They survived the Warsaw ghetto.
In that manner Joanna in Wrocław touched the world of Sabina from Lviv.
It was first that hot summer afternoon that she confessed to me her true story. She hadn’t said goodbye to me warmly and effusively as she used to do. She was angry, her lips were tightened. Her look at me expressed a deep disapproval.
It was beyond my comprehension that such a big family vanished while only a few saved themselves. I spent hours and days browsing online through various archives to identify traces of potential survivors in the Spinner and Altenberg families. All efforts were in vain. According to estimations, 800 Jews survived Holocaust in Lviv. It represented 0.5% of the Jewish population present there when Germans arrived in the city. To survive meant to win a chance, one in two hundred.
WROCŁAW, SEPTEMBER 2018
My text was written during the course of several months. It gave me an opportunity to fill the gaps in grandma’s story by inquiring more from her. We gave our testimonies to Yad Vashem by recording the names of her loved ones murdered in the Shoah. Grandma left us at the end of the summer of 2018. In her closet I discovered an old, wrinkled wallet with a kennkarte (a German work identity card) and the baptismal certificate of Joanna Grochowska from Stanisławów. Her whole story of pain and fear in one bag. I still believe that despite the trauma, she wanted me to remember about the Spinner family from Lviv. Otherwise, she would have never come to me and opened up.
Following my new passion to do genealogical research, I came across the diary of Janina Altman (née Hescheles) that she wrote when she was only twelve years old after being saved from the Janowska camp in Lviv. My unexpected discovery was that Zygmunt Labiner worked with Janina’s mother in the Jewish hospital in the ghetto. The young author described how grandma’s brother-in-law was appointed a director while her mother became his secretary. When reading about the winter of 1941 in Lviv, I identified inaccuracies in grandma’s version of the story. On Sundays, when it was freezing cold outside, hospital employees were forced to clear city streets from snow. Anyone not joining the effort got fired immediately by Germans. No employment meant deportation or an immediate execution. Zygmunt Labiner and the director of the hospital, Dr. Kurzrok, were marching at the front of the group. Hadn’t Gina’s husband died in the summer of 1941? Hadn’t Gina escaped Lviv shortly before? What about grandma?
Grandma passed away in September of 2018. I study the court records that I found in her wardrobe after her death. In multiple documents, she stated she came to Kraków around June of 1942. I read in one of her testimonies that she witnessed her cousin Julek, the brother of Marek Spinner, being deported to Bełżec in the Aktion of March 1942. Looking back at our conversations, I realized she might have mentioned to me that she left Lviv in August of 1941. I assumed the dates were correct and never asked again. Also, the Polin Museum website was incorrect – the massacre in the Jewish hospital at Kuszewicza Street occurred on August 20, 1942 as another historic book indicated. Meaning it all played out one year later than I assumed based on grandma’s testimony. In general, it is a challenge to find any accounts about the hospital in the Lviv ghetto.
Reading the diary I learned that Zygmunt had an apartment in the hospital building where he lived with his family. I will never know if grandma or Milek stayed with them at the same place. It had a secret passage into a shelter used by the hospital employees and their families during Aktionen when Germans and Ukrainians were raiding the building to take away anyone not being employed. They aimed especially at the sick, children or older people. The hiding place, called the bunker of Labiner, was entered through the chimney of the movable kitchen stove where the Labiners lived.
I had talked to Mrs. Altman, living in Haifa, on Skype. Her Polish was perfect almost 80 years later and her mind was sharp. In her diary, she mentioned that shortly before the Great Aktion of August 1942, Dr. Kurzrok arranged a transfer into a hospital in the Janowska camp for his father, his cousin Adlersberg and the Labiners. According to Altman’s account, grandma’s brother-in-law, Gina and the baby girl Vilma left on a train to Kraków. In my conversation with Mrs. Altman, she happily repeated, “Labiner survived, Labiner survived.” I killed her hopes by saying that only my great aunt with her daughter managed to escape to Kraków and from the immediate family Gina and my grandmother Joanna were sole survivors. She remembered Zygmunt‘s appearance similarly to the words of my grandma, he was tall and had curly hair. There is not a single photo of him. She also recalled that Labiner was taking out people from trucks in front of the hospital that were loaded by Ukrainian guards. The victims were doomed to be taken to executions or being deported to Bełżec. In that way, Zygmunt was able to save a few more lives till the next Aktion occurred. On August 20, 1942, he was shot at the Piaski sands. Janina Altman devoted one of her camp poems to this picturesque place with a terrifying history of mass executions.
I wonder under what circumstances Gina‘s husband made a decision to stay behind in Lviv and send his loved ones to Kraków. Was the chance of survival higher without him? Moreover, I asked Mrs. Altman about Sabina Spinner. She did not recall her. The Jagiellonian University in Kraków sent me grandma‘s file from the end of the war. In the questionnaire, she wrote that she worked one year in a hospital as a nurse till the end of spring of 1942. I wished I could ask if she indeed worked with Zygmunt at the same address at Kuszewicza Street. Where else could she have been working as a Jew in Lviv till June 1942? When I am thinking now about the way she told me her survival story, I realized she gave the most detailed account about the atrocities in the hospital. Otherwise, she had been giving me very sparse information when it came to the horrors of the war. She also described Zygmunt‘s position and the constant deportations of the sick people unable to work in very similar words in Polish as Altman’s diary pictured it.
Unfortunately, Janina Altman passed away this July. Her diary and her poems are the first-hand accounts of the genocide in Lviv that directly touched my family. It has been almost four years since grandma left us. Eight years have passed since she gave me the testimony about World War 2 and her family. Also, it is only for those last eight years that I have known that my grandmother Joanna was a Holocaust survivor, born as Sabina Spinner. I had already suspected she was Jewish after realizing her sister Gina must have been Jewish if she wore an Auschwitz tattoo that the Jews in the Schindler‘s List movie had. Grandma never answered my questions, not before that summer afternoon of 2014. I grew up only with my father, treating grandma as my mom. Unfortunately, I still recall antisemitism directed at her but also at me and my father in my early childhood from my maternal relatives. Even though I had no knowledge at that time what all those words meant. It is also necessary to explain that during my school eduction in Poland there was no curriculum about the history of Holocaust nor the differentiation between the Polish Jewish fate and the rest of the society during the war. When I was a child, grandma visited theaters with me to see performances based on Isaac Singer‘s books or the musical, Fiddler on the Roof. Later, we read Singer’s stories. How could I have been comparing my grandmother to the portrait of a traditional Jew with sidelocks? Shortly before her death, I asked her if she could speak Yiddish. She denied it. While looking at her university application forms from Lviv that Andrew Zalewski sent me, I came across the section about languages where she highlighted the knowledge of Polish, German, Latin; reading skills in Ukrainian and comprehension of the Jewish tongue. Indeed, she knew some Yiddish. Her sport activities, documented on the same page, overlapped with mine: skiing, swimming, skating and tennis. Moreover, I inherited a golden pendant with mysterious symbols and graphics from my grandmother. Till her last days, she wore it at any time, or when asleep, she kept it next to her bed in an ornamented box. Inside, there is a space for a small photo. I recently asked my father about the jewelry. Supposedly, it is the only family souvenir from Lviv. I contacted my friend Ola, an expert in Judaism, about the symbols. To my surprise, it is a Jewish amulet, according to Kabbalah beliefs, protecting an owner and dangerous in the wrong hands. It may symbolize a Marrano, a Spanish or Portuguese Jew converted against his or her will. It has a symbol of God and the temple of David, and Cohens. The knowledge about those ancient graphics is rare. There was little probability that anyone might have recognized her Jewishness when wearing it and while living under a Polish Catholic identity.
Today, I wear it for special family occasions and, as I promised her, keeping the memories of the Spinners from Lviv alive.