David P. Boder Interviews Polia Bisenhaus; July 29, 1946; Paris, France



Polia Bisenhaus was born in the southeastern Polish town of Staszów in the Kielce district. Staszów had a prewar Jewish population of approximately 5,000, fully half of the total population. On September 7-8, 1939, one week after the outbreak of World War II, the Germans arrived in Staszów. They appointed a Jewish council and subjected the Jewish population to heavy fines, humiliations, beatings, forced labor, and killings. On June 15, 1942, the Germans sealed the Staszów ghetto, and in June and October 1942 a number of Jews were executed. On November 8, 1942, 6,000 Jews from the ghetto, including a number of Jews who had come to Staszów since the war's outbreak, were deported to the Belzec and Treblinka extermination centers. The last few hundred Jews from the Staszów ghetto were deported to Treblinka on January 10, 1943.

Bisenhaus escaped all this because she was working as a forced laborer in a Hassag (privately owned German industrial company that employed slave labor) munitions factory in the city of Kielce. (Kielce would become infamous immediately after the war when elements of the town's Polish population conducted a pogrom against Jewish Holocaust survivors on July 4, 1946. Forty-two Jews were killed, and fifty more were wounded. This pogrom help spark a mass exodus of survivors from Poland and elsewhere.) While most of her family, including her parents and her two brothers and three sisters did not survive the war, Polia's forced labor in the militarily vital munitions factory helped insure her survival during the three years she worked there. She continued working in the factory until the winter of 1945 when, as the Red army advanced, she was evacuated to another munitions factory in Częstochowa located southeast of Kielce. As the German retreat continued, Polia was then evacuated to the notorious Bergen-Belsen camp in northern Germany near the town of Celle.

Bergen-Belsen began in July 1943 as a camp for prisoners whom the Nazis wished to exchange for Germans in allied territory. At first, conditions were better there than those in other camps, but especially towards the end of 1944, there was a marked deterioration. Thousands of inmates were sent to the camp as the Germans retreated in the wake of the Red army's winter offensive. Most arrived starved and disease-ridden. Conditions in the camp were horrendous and were exacerbated by the winter cold, especially in January and February 1945. Polia tells of the incredibly meager food rations she received, the totally inadequate sanitary facilities, the murderous appells, and the beatings and utter degradation she underwent. All around her inmates were perishing from extreme malnutrition from tuberculosis and dysentery and from a typhus epidemic which raged in the camp. (It was this epidemic that claimed the life of Anne Frank in Belsen in March 1945).

By the spring of 1945, nearly 20,000 inmates had died. When the British army liberated the camp on April 15, they were shocked and horrified both by the living skeletons they found and by the 10,000 unburied bodies strewn about the camp, which had to be buried in mass graves. The 58,000 mostly Jewish inmates who were still alive were in critical condition. During the two months following liberation, an additional 13,944 perished. Bergen-Belsen became synonymous with man's inhumanity towards his fellow human beings.

Several weeks prior to Belsen's liberation, Polia had been transported on a harrowing train journey south to Bavaria where she was incarcerated in several subcamps of Dachau. She was liberated by the American army on April 29, 1945 in the main camp of Dachau. Like other inmates brought to Dachau at the time, she was a walking skeleton, exhausted and malnourished almost to the point of death.

Boder recorded this interview on July 29th, 1946 in the ORT school in Paris. Polia was brought to Paris after the war by her aunt and uncle who had been residing there for a number of years. Boder noted that this was only the second interview he had conducted for his project, which contributes to some confusion at the start. He also noted that Polia understandably still seemed to be affected by the sufferings she had endured. She indeed bears testimony to the deep and lasting losses and emotional and psychological scars borne by the victims of the Holocaust. Boder was kind enough to offer to make contact with an uncle whom Polia said she had in Chicago. However, she did not wish to emigrate to the United States but rather, like so many survivors at the time, to make a new life for herself in Palestine.

—Elliot Lefkovitz