David P. Boder Interviews Israel Unikowski; August 2, 1946; Fontenay-aux-Roses, France



The events narrated in this interview offer a glimpse of life in the large urban ghettos of Poland. Had Israel Unikowsky been a bit younger, he probably would not have survived. His initiative and native intelligence helped, but without the ability to work in ghetto and camp his chances were slim. He was just eleven when the Germans overran his hometown of Kalisz in western Poland. His mother had died when he was three, and his father had abandoned him and an older brother four years later. Raised in a religious orphanage for Jewish boys aged five to thirteen, the two brothers and thirty other orphans fled from the Germans toward what they hoped would be the comparative safety of the nearest big Polish city, Łódź. They made it shortly after the Germans took Łódź on September 8, 1939, and threw themselves on the mercy of the local Jewish community. Unikowsky would manage to stay there until the end of the ghetto almost five years later.

The morally ambiguous figure of ghetto leader Chaim Rumkowski presents itself almost at the beginning of Israel Unikowsky’s tale. Rumkowski, who headed the Łódź Jewish orphanages at the time of Poland's downfall, at first seemed to despair of aiding his additional charges but later saw to their needs. One can hardly blame Unikowsky for hating the man who later tried to deport him and the rest of the ghetto children to death camps, but even Unikowsky acknowledges Rumkowski's goal of saving at least some of the Jews through work and supplying them with rations that were fairly and efficiently distributed. This interview also introduces us to the far more shadowy figure of David Gertler, head of the ghetto police and second most powerful Jewish administrator in Łódź.

Unikowsky clearly shared the opinion of many ghetto inhabitants that Gertler was a more attractive figure than Rumkowski for his smuggling of food into and people out of the ghetto. Unikowsky does not mention that none of this could have been done without the connivance of corrupt German officials and that it led to Gertler's arrest and deportation in July 1943. Evidently Gertler survived the war. The precise nature of his role in Łódź and his subsequent fate have never been fully clarified.

Unikowsky's narrow escape from the massive deportations from Łódź in September 1942 is one of the more remarkable episodes in this collection. However, he could not evade being rounded up during the liquidation of the ghetto in 1944. He was sent to Auschwitz where he was healthy enough and lucky enough to be selected for work on a nearby farm that produced food for the camp. His luck held at Buchenwald, too. Sent there in January 1945, he was among those assigned to the youth block, most of whom survived. His account shows that at least some liberated concentration camp inmates subjected German civilians to revenge attacks before leaving the country. Unikowsky moved to France where he was studying dental technology at the time of his interview at the ORT home at Chateau de Boucicaut. He expressed no particular plans for the future, however. For him the lesson of the Holocaust was that "thinking about tomorrow won't do."

From FRESH WOUNDS: EARLY NARRATIVES OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVAL by Donald L. Niewyk. Copyright (c) 1998 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu