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

  • David Boder: [In German] Now you talk into this.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Now what shall I talk.
  • David Boder: I shall tell you. Now tell me Polia, what is your full name?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: What?
  • David Boder: What is your name?
  • David Boder: [In English] What's your name?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [In German] My name? Polia Bisenhaus.
  • David Boder: Say it again . . .
  • David Boder: [In English] Polia what?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [In German] Polia Bisenhaus.
  • David Boder: Bisenhaus?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Bisenhaus.
  • David Boder: Bisenhaus.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [In French] Yes.
  • David Boder: [In Yiddish] Where are you from?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: I? - from Poland.
  • David Boder: You are from Poland?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [In French] Yes.
  • David Boder: [In German/Yiddish] From what city in Poland?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Stashu.
  • David Boder: Stashu?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Hm.
  • David Boder: What is that [In English] Russian? [In German/Yiddish] Russian-Poland, or.....?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: It was in Poland....
  • David Boder: Come nearer a bit. Was it Russian Poland?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Russian Poland. Before the war [a few words not clear] it was Russian Poland.Polia here is most probably referring to World War I, since prior to that Staszów was part of Russian-controlled Poland. The Russians were not in Staszów at the start of World War II—it was occupied from the very beginning by the Germans.1
  • David Boder: Yes. But during the war, were the Russians there or....
  • Polia Bisenhaus: The Russians.
  • David Boder: The Russians were there. All right now, tell me, and then when the Russians had left - when did the Germans come? Tell me the whole story.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Well I was not there when the Russians arrived I was already in a lager with the Germans [She apparently refers to the end of the war]. I was not in Stashu.This is in reference to the Russian conquest of Staszów in the winter of 1944.2
  • David Boder: How did you get to Germany?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: I was in Kielce in [locality not clear] in a labor....in an ammunition lager, in a work lager; I worked at ammunitions, and afterwards in the year '44 I was evacuated to Germany.Kielce was the name of both a district and a town within the district.3
  • David Boder: So. But where did you live when the Russians came?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Well I was not under the Russians.
  • David Boder: You were not under the Russians?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: I was liberated by the Americans.
  • David Boder: And you were not under the Russians.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: No, I was not under the Russians, I was liberated by the Americans.This refers to Polia's liberation from Dachau on April 29, 1945 by American troops.4
  • David Boder: Yes. Now then in what kind of a lager were you? Where were you in a lager?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: In Poland I was in a lager, a labor lager; and in Germany I was in an annihilation lager.By this, Polia means Bergen-Belsen.5
  • David Boder: An annihilation camp?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [In French] Yes.
  • David Boder: [In German/English] Alright. Tell me about that labor camp.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [In German/Yiddish] Well we were working twelve hours a day. One week during the day, one week during the night.
  • David Boder: What work did you do?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Ammunitions. That is....ammunitions....
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: /a few words not clear]
  • David Boder: Oh. That was a factory.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: ....a factory. [In French] Yes.
  • David Boder: [In German/Yiddish] Now then, and what did they give you to eat?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: In Poland it was not bad. In Poland the food was fair, some days there was meat, but in Germany it was very bad.
  • David Boder: Aha. But that was in Poland. And how long did you work in Poland?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: In Poland? Three years.
  • David Boder: Three years. And why were you moved from there?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: When the Russians approached Kielce we were sent to Częstochowa. And afterwards, when they approached Częstochowa we were sent to Germany. [two or three words not clear]Częstochowa is known for the Jasna Gora monastery that houses the painting of the Black Madonna, making it the most famous Catholic pilgrimage site in Poland.6
  • David Boder: Aha. Why did you tell me that you were in an annihilation camp? Which camp was that?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Bergen-Belsen.
  • David Boder: Bergen-Belsen?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [In French] Oui.
  • David Boder: [In German/Yiddish] Ohhh! What were you doing there?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: There we did nothing. We were sitting around and we got no food. We got ten deca of bread [about three ounces] per day, but on certain days there was no bread either. They would say.... the bread did not arrive [??] and they gave us no food. And when the SS would come, and ask "why were you not given food today", so they said, the SS told us to say that we had stolen.
  • David Boder: You should say that?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes, that we should say that we had stolen and that is why we don't get any, we have food punishment.
  • David Boder: Aha.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: And that is why we got no food.
  • David Boder: Aha.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: And that happened many times during the week.
  • David Boder: Aha. And how did you sleep. Tell me about that.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: We slept on the ground, and it was....all day we were sitting on the ground, on the same straw, and afterwards at night we slept on the same place. It was very dirty there. Many died from the dirt that was there.
  • David Boder: What did the Germans say? Why were you held there?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: They told us nothing about why they held us there. They did not tell us but we knew, that they held us because they wanted to annihilate us, but they did not succeed.
  • David Boder: All right. Did they annihilate there other people?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [two words not clear] When the people were weak, and were becoming weaker from day to day because they were not given any food, so they annihilated them. There was....well a chamber where they gassed [gas-killed] them, and afterwards they burned....well that all is known what the Germans have done.There was a crematorium in Bergen-Belsen, but there was not a gas chamber. Inmates died primarily from disease and starvation.7
  • David Boder: How come you say it is well known? In America they know very little.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Oh, they know in America. The periodicals have written a lot. Don't they know?
  • David Boder: Oh yes, some people know, some people don't. That's why I want....do you have relatives in America?Boder here might have been beginning to articulate a key motive for conducting his interviews, namely, to make the world aware of Nazi crimes.8
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Oui, I have relatives in America.
  • David Boder: Where are your relatives?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: One uncle is in New York and one is in Chicago.
  • David Boder: You have an uncle in Chicago?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [In French] Yes.
  • David Boder: [In German/Yiddish] I am from Chicago.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Bisenhaus. It is the same name.
  • David Boder: Bisenhaus?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Bisenhaus. He is an uncle of my father.
  • David Boder: Do you wish that I should see your uncle?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [In French] Yes! [In German/Yiddish] I should like to see him very much. But I should like....
  • David Boder: Do you want me to see your uncle, that I should talk to him?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [rather indifferent] Yes, why not?
  • David Boder: Do you want to come to America?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: I don't know. I would very much like to go to Palestine.
  • David Boder: You want very much....
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Because I have there two aunts, and I would like better to go to Palestine. Yes, I think, for me it will be better than in America.
  • David Boder: Do you want to say something to your uncle?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: To my uncle?
  • David Boder: Yes. I shall call him to my house and have him listen to the machine. [There ensuses a conversation. It was apparently not clear to her that the conversation is being recorded] He will hear what you are saying.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: What I am saying, he will hear?
  • David Boder: Yes, yes.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: And what he says I would not hear? Oh, that is no good. I want to hear him too.
  • David Boder: [In English] No, no, no. [In German] No, no. Here you may simply say something, just like on a radio.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: But I don't know his address.
  • David Boder: Oh, I will find him.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes?
  • David Boder: Yes. I shall find him. You will later give me his address. I shall take it down and I will find him.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Right now.
  • David Boder: No, no. You just say now what you want to tell to your uncle, and when I shall return to Chicago, I shall have this machine, and I shall ask him to my house and I shall let him hear what you are saying.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: So, and when will you be home?
  • David Boder: In five weeks.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Five weeks?
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Well, that is good [She apparently was unable to grasp the situation].
  • David Boder: Now say something.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Now can I say anything? If I could talk to him I would have a lot to say.
  • David Boder: Now for example, what would you like to tell to your uncle?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: What I would like....how he was, how he feels, what is he doing.
  • David Boder: So. Do you want him to do something for you?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: For you? [She is apparently bewildered by the German second person plural].Apparently, "Sie".9
  • David Boder: Do you want him to do something for you? Has he sent you money?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Well he sends me....yes.
  • David Boder: He sends you....?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes, but I am learning a trade so that I may earn something myself. It is not nice that the uncle should have to send me [money]. He may send it once, twice, three times, but it is not proper.
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: I am not sick, one does not have to support me, I want to become independent, I want to earn [something] myself.Polia's sentiments here are indicative of those of many survivors who wished to rebuild their lives and reassert their humanity after the trials and tribulations they had been through.10
  • David Boder: Speak louder. Is he a rich man, your uncle?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes, he is not poor.
  • David Boder: How many weeks, how many months were you in Belsen, in Belsen?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: I was three months in Bergen-Belsen.
  • David Boder: Three months?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Three months.Most probably January, February and part of March, 1945.11
  • David Boder: Were many people exterminated there?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes. Many people died. Because at the appell.....
  • David Boder: Um.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Do you know what an appell is?
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: They would call out people, they were going completely naked, with nothing on....
  • David Boder: Why had they nothing on?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: They have taken away everything that we had yet from home. All their clothes. They have given such stripes.The striped uniforms of concentration camp survivors.12
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [a few words not clear]....without shoes or stockings we were going around in the greatest....January, in the greatest cold, January, February, these are the greatest colds, and we were going around almost naked, all shorn [?] without food, without sleep, without washing, so many of course died.
  • David Boder: Did the Nazie molest the woman, did they.....
  • Polia Bisenhaus: ....beat them?
  • David Boder: No, I mean were they indescent with the woman?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: That of course is understood. [She apparently did not understand the allusion to sex]
  • David Boder: [In English] What do you mean, "it is understood?"
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [In Yiddish/German] They behaved very badly towards the women. They have beaten us frequently. When one did not stand straight at the appell, when in the cold one would cuddle up next to the other, and they would beat [us] over the head, and otherwise drag us around.
  • David Boder: Now tell me for example, what were people doing all day in Belsen. Say you got up in the morning - at what time?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: In the morning there was an appell to get up say at four o'clock, three o'clock, five o'clock.
  • David Boder: Nu.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: So we went to wash. For washing there was a room a very small one; cold water very cold, and we would go in there completely naked, and many of us caught cold.
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: And the organism [She uses the word organ with a slurred ending] is weak, one did not eat; one washes himself with cold water.
  • David Boder: Were there men or women who.....
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Women, these were.
  • David Boder: I mean the Nazis.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: The Nazis? There were women and men. But the women were much worse to us. They were much worse to us than the men.There were a number of German female SS guards at Belsen who oversaw and tortured the thousands of Jewish female inmates there. Their behavior might have been made worse in part by their desire to impress their male counterparts.13
  • David Boder: How come?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Well, the women were beating us terribly, they were beating us. There were many Jews [women] Turkish and Romanian [Jews] who were the lager leaders, lager trusties and they were much worse than the Nazis.
  • David Boder: You mean to say there were Jewish lager leaders?In early December, 1944, Josef Kramer became camp commandant, a post formerly held by Adolf Haas. Under Kramer, Bergen-Belsen became a concentration camp. The internal management of the camp was placed in the hands of prisoner overseers as was done in other concentration camps. In order to retain their posts or from sheer sadism, a number felt compelled to demonstrate their ruthlessness. Polia's description of the brutal Jewish female functionaries as "Turkish or Romanian" is highly dubious, especially since Turkey was neutral during World War II. It should be noted that after the war Kramer and other SS administrators of the camp, including sixteen women, were tried for their crimes at Belsen. Kramer and eleven others were condemned to death and executed. Nineteen were imprisoned and fourteen were acquitted.14
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes.
  • David Boder: And....
  • Polia Bisenhaus: And they were very mean to us, very mean.
  • David Boder: There were Jewish lager leaders and they have.....
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes, yes, they behaved very mean.
  • David Boder: Towards the other Jews?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes, yes. Very mean.
  • David Boder: Now tell me then. You would get up at three, four in the morning, and you went to wash, then what?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes, afterwards they have gave us coffee, black coffee; many times we would not get that either, and without bread.
  • David Boder: Without bread. [In English] All right.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [In Yiddish/German] Yes. And afterwards at twelve o'clock, half past eleven, eleven, however it would happen, it was dinner time. At dinner time there was a bit of soup, three-quarters of a liter, sometimes half a liter, sometimes not even a half a liter, that was with turnips. If one would find three pieces of turnips in a soup that was considered already very good. That was already a good soup.No doubt she means "lunch" time.15
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: And afterwards at five o'clock at four o'clock, sometimes at six o'clock there was bread, a little piece of bread, divided among ten people, twelve people.
  • David Boder: Hm....
  • Polia Bisenhaus: It would come out maybe eight deca of bread, ten deca of bread a piece. That was the meal.
  • David Boder: And then in the evening. And then what were you doing after the meal?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Afterwards we kept on sitting like all of the day. During the appell we got our dinner.
  • David Boder: Oh.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: The appell took place every day.
  • David Boder: What do you call the appell? What was the appell?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: The appell is the count, whether somebody had escaped, whether somebody had died, so they would know exactly how many are to be handed over to the [next]shift, how many there were in the lager.
  • David Boder: Aha.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: How many women, men....[?] It happened many times that the appell lasted four, five hours. And many people collapsed at the appell, from the cold and from fatigue, from hunger.
  • David Boder: And what was done with them?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [She apparently did not get the question]. Well afterwards we went....often they made an appell - not to stand outdoors [??] but they took us to work. The work consisted in carrying sticks, all kinds of lumber from one yard into the other. That was the work.....was nothing, but they beat us many times when we could not run so fast and [word not clear].This routine was part of the senseless labor in Bergen-Belsen and other camps, designed to weaken and inflict pain on the prisoners and minimize any chance of revolt.16
  • David Boder: Hm....now tell me was there a doctor?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes, there was a doctor, a dentist.
  • David Boder: A dentist, did he do anything for the prisoners? Did he do something for them?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Well, he pulled teeth. He pulled them out if one had a toothache, he took out teeth.
  • David Boder: [In English/Yiddish] Was it a German doctor?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [In Yiddish/German] No. [??] There was a German doctor, there was a Jewish doctor.Despite Polia's mention of a dentist and a doctor, there was no real medical care for Bergen-Belsen detainees at the time.17
  • David Boder: A Jewish doctor....
  • Polia Bisenhaus: A Jewish doctor.
  • David Boder: Aha. And [a pause] tell me and then how were you liberated?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Liberated I was from Dachau by the Americans.
  • David Boder: Now come, were you sent from Belsen....?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: From Belsen there were afterwards still three lagers.
  • David Boder: Tell me about them.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: After Belsen we were in Burgau, and afterwards in Turkenheim.
  • David Boder: [In English] Yes.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [In Yiddish/German] In Burgau we were three weeks, or four weeks. Afterwards, in Turkenheim I was two weeks. Afterwards when [one word not clear] the Americans approached we were led to Dachau and there we were liberated, the 30-th of ....
  • David Boder: Now were you transported from one lager to the other, by train, by truck, how?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: From Bergen-Belsen to Burgau we traveled in wagons [RR cars].
  • David Boder: In wagons?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: In wagons.
  • David Boder: And how long did that last?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: It lasted a whole eight days. Eight days it lasted - the trip.
  • David Boder: And...
  • Polia Bisenhaus: And we did not get any food on the way, and there were bombardments, and many were killed by bombs.During the final months of the war, the Allies, with complete air supremacy, bombed Germany relentlessly—often with dire consequences for both German combatants and non-combatants and prisoners.18
  • David Boder: Were also your people killed, how come?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes, yes.
  • David Boder: How, did the bombs fall....
  • Polia Bisenhaus: The bombs fell
  • David Boder: On the train?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: On the train, one could not run away.
  • David Boder: How could you run away if you were in the train?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Well, on the other side...
  • David Boder: Oh, the train was standing?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: When they bombarded the train would stand.
  • David Boder: And the Nazis too?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: The Nazis have run away. They hid. They were shooting, they shot at the planes and ...
  • David Boder: Did they permit you to hide?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: They did not see it. They themselves were in a mix-up, because they themselves wanted to run away.
  • David Boder: Well then....and then you marched eight days, where from?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: And then we marched eight days from Turkenheim to Dachau.Dachau was established on March 10, 1933. It was the first concentration camp organized by the SS and the model and training ground for all other SS-operated camps. At least 32,000 human beings perished at Dachau during the twelve years of its existence, including inmates subjected to barbarous pseudo-medical experiments conducted there.19
  • David Boder: Turkenheim to Dachau. Now tell me you came to Dachau. What were you doing there?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: In Dachau it was already a few days before liberation. We arrived, and the SS said to the leaders, who brought us: 'Why did you bring these people, I don't need them;' So they said, 'we don't know, because they wanted to hide [save themselves], what shall we do with these people?' And the SS leader said: 'Oh I know well what to do with these people.' He lined us up, and we thought that they were going to shoot us, because there was a rumor [??] that so will be done with all Jews. Afterwards there came an order, and they ran away, and when the gestapo saw this they ran away. And afterwards we were led into a block, already there were....
  • David Boder: What do you mean?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: The SS already behaved themselves with the Jews, the Jews already started taking over. They saw that liberation was near, they took us into a block [she speaks with excitement]. The people were tired, eight days walking on foot, and in the morning when we came out we saw no more SS. They were all gone. And in the air up high were people standing and they showed white flags [??] and there were standing already Jewish prisoners.Jews were among the inmates who were attempting to assume control of the camp after most of the SS guards had fled, leaving a garrison of about two hundred to defend the camp.20
  • David Boder: Jewish prisoners?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Jewish prisoners, with guns, and they have taken over the service from the Nazis.
  • David Boder: Yes. Now....
  • Polia Bisenhaus: One saw that things have changed.
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Afterwards the Nazis tried to get out of the lager, they still wanted to kill the few Jews, but they failed, because the Americans had come.
  • David Boder: They failed. So how many days were you in Dachau?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: In Dachau I was three weeks already after liberation. Afterwards..
  • David Boder: But before liberation? How long were you....
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Well I was there two days.
  • David Boder: Two days only, in Dachau.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes, two days.
  • David Boder: And then came liberation.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Then came liberation. And we were liberated by the Americans, and that was already good.
  • David Boder: Yes. Were many SS arrested when the Americans came?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes, many were arrested, but the Americans did not do anything. They [the prisoners] recognized an SS who did much evil to the Jews[??], but the Americans did not permit to do anything to him.American soldiers did in fact kill the SS troops manning the guard towers. Several others were killed by Americans who were incensed and sickened by the gruesome sights they encountered upon entering the camp. Some inmates also took retribution against their SS tormentors. However, as Polia indicates, the vast majority of the remaining SS guards were imprisoned.21
  • David Boder: What did the Americans do?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: They did not want to do anything.
  • David Boder: They did not permit....
  • Polia Bisenhaus: No, they did not permit
  • David Boder: ....to do anything to him.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [In English] No.
  • David Boder: [In German/Yiddish] So where did the Jewish men get the rifles....?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: They did not get them, they took them from the Nazis, when they threw away their rifles.
  • David Boder: Oh.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: And they took them right away.
  • David Boder: Aha. And now how did you happen to come to Paris?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: To Paris I was taken by an uncle and an aunt.
  • David Boder: Where from? From Paris?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes, they were already here.
  • David Boder: Oh, they have lived already in Paris?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes, they lived in Paris [??]
  • David Boder: Did you have the address?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: No, I had no address, but they found out from a [word not clear] from a list.Following the war, survivors and various tracing services posted their names on lists to facilitate searching for relatives. It was no doubt by perusing these lists that Polia's relatives discovered that she was alive. Between the time of her liberation from Dachau and the time she arrived in Paris at the beginning of 1946, there is no indication as to where Polia was recuperating.22
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: It was sent out from the lager, so it became known in America. The uncle made inquiries in Paris, who....that was the Bisenhaus from Labush [??]. The first did not know, and they did not know me, because I was still very fatigued [??], afterwards they found out they took me over here.
  • David Boder: They took you over to Paris. And how long are you now in Paris?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: In Paris I am six months.
  • David Boder: Six months. And you plan to go to Palestine.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Hm.
  • David Boder: Better than to go to America?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Better than to go to America.
  • David Boder: Who do you know. Who do you have in Palestine?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: In Palestine I have two aunts.
  • David Boder: Where?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [words not clear] in Hadera [??]
  • David Boder: And you think that they can take you over.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: They don't know me but I have to go there through a Kibbutz a Hachshara.
  • David Boder: Through what?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: I can go through a Hachshara, through a Kibbutz.
  • David Boder: Do you understand Hebrew?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: No, I don't know. The little I knew I have forgotten, because I study now French.
  • David Boder: You study French here, and your uncle and aunt live here already a long time?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes. They are here already seventeen years.
  • David Boder: Aha. I wish to ask you for something.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes.
  • David Boder: I am a professor who studies these things you understand. But I shall see, if you give me the address of your uncle....
  • Polia Bisenhaus: I have the address at home.
  • David Boder: I shall be here tomorrow and after tomorrow.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes, yes. Will you come here . . . in the morning too?
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Well I will bring the address . . .
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: . . . for my uncle, yes?
  • David Boder: Yes. And I will visit your uncle then . . .
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes, he will be very interested . . . you will tell him you have seen me at ORT . . .
  • David Boder: Yes. He will be very happy.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Well, yes. Naturally!
  • David Boder: [In German/Yiddish/English] [unintelligible] [Here I showed her one of the TAT cards. —D.P.B.] This is a picture by a prominent artist. From the last three years of your experiences, what do you think does this picture mean?These were most probably cards with various images designed to evoke emotional and psychological responses from subjects. Polia's responses indicate that she was projecting her own feelings and experiences onto the images.23
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [In Yiddish/German] Well this picture is of a woman, I believe she has lost everything, who is worried about what to do, she has no way out.
  • David Boder: And what do you think is this picture about?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: This picture is about the war, this is about the war.
  • David Boder: Yes, go on.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: That is [word not clear]
  • David Boder: Yes, what do you think happened to him?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Well he has lost everything. The whole family, he has remained alone. [word not clear] I too have remained alone of the whole family.The supremely tragic losses endured by Polia and other survivors included loss of family, loss of home, loss of friends and acquaintances, loss of culture, loss of possessions, loss of dignity, and often loss of faith.24
  • David Boder: And what is this?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: And this. I don't know. It is a [word not clear].
  • David Boder: But what do you think?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: I think he is thinking about his wife, who has died. And this is his daughter. I don't know [word not clear].
  • David Boder: And what do you think is this?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: This? [a pause, she says only a few words which are not clear].
  • David Boder: And what do think is this?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: [a few words not clear]
  • David Boder: And what do you think is this?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Is it not Palestine?
  • David Boder: Maybe.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Maybe. He works, he works in the field, and that is very nice.
  • David Boder: Tell me, do you have a father and mother?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: No. my father and mother were deported with the whole family.
  • David Boder: When were they deported?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Five or six years ago [??]
  • David Boder: When you were still in Kielce.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes, when I still was in Kielce. I was still home. I was sent from Kielce, we were taken to the city where there was a .....shop [She uses the English word - like so many DPs] for all kinds of trades. And I went to the shop, money was paid [apparently a bribe to gain occupational deferment from deportation] and I was accepted, and afterwards I was eight [eighteen??] days I was in the shop and then I was sent to Kielce. And the family was deported and I don't know where they are.For many survivors the ultimate fate of their families remained unknown. Polia was among the lucky and plucky few Polish Jews who survived for five years under German occupation. Some three million other Polish Jews were liquidated.25
  • David Boder: When was the family deported?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: '42.
  • David Boder: I mean how long after the Nazis came was the family deported?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Oh, the Germans had come in '39. In '39....
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: ....and the parents were deported in '42.
  • David Boder: The parents were deported in '42.
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes, in '42.
  • David Boder: Were you home when they were deported?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: No I was not home.
  • David Boder: You were in Kielce?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes.
  • David Boder: Do you have brothers and sisters?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: I had[word not clear] but I am alone of the six of the whole family [there is a great deal of noise, the last sentence may be incorrect].
  • David Boder: How many brothers and sisters did you have?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: I had two brothers, and three sisters.
  • David Boder: And where are they?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Deported. My brothers were in Skarżysko and they are no more. Maybe they were murdered in Skarżysko.
  • David Boder: Now what shall I tell your uncle in Chicago?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Now whatever you want to tell him. That you have....
  • David Boder: Are you all right here
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Yes. I have it good here, with my aunt, with my uncle.
  • David Boder: And you study here, you learn....
  • Polia Bisenhaus: I learn at the ORT to make soutien gorge [brassiers]"Soutien gorge" is a French expression for "brassiere." Polia was being trained in brassiere making in the ORT school.26
  • David Boder: What is that?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: Soutien gorge I learn....
  • David Boder: What is that?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: These are corsets well, soutien gorge.
  • David Boder: And what are you doing in the day time? [The interview took place at an ORT night school.]
  • Polia Bisenhaus: During the day I do nothing. Now I do nothing.
  • David Boder: Don't you work?
  • Polia Bisenhaus: No I do not work during the day. [It was hard for DPs to get work permits in Paris.]Though stateless, Polia was more fortunate than many DPs at the time who were languishing in refugee camps in Germany, Austria and Italy. Most wished to emigrate to Palestine but were denied entry by the British.27
  • David Boder: [In English] This is a record of Polia Bisenhaus taken at the ORT school, evening course, on July 29th, in Paris, 1946.
  1. Polia here is most probably referring to World War I, since prior to that Staszów was part of Russian-controlled Poland. The Russians were not in Staszów at the start of World War II—it was occupied from the very beginning by the Germans.
  2. This is in reference to the Russian conquest of Staszów in the winter of 1944.
  3. Kielce was the name of both a district and a town within the district.
  4. This refers to Polia's liberation from Dachau on April 29, 1945 by American troops.
  5. By this, Polia means Bergen-Belsen.
  6. Częstochowa is known for the Jasna Gora monastery that houses the painting of the Black Madonna, making it the most famous Catholic pilgrimage site in Poland.
  7. There was a crematorium in Bergen-Belsen, but there was not a gas chamber. Inmates died primarily from disease and starvation.
  8. Boder here might have been beginning to articulate a key motive for conducting his interviews, namely, to make the world aware of Nazi crimes.
  9. Apparently, "Sie".
  10. Polia's sentiments here are indicative of those of many survivors who wished to rebuild their lives and reassert their humanity after the trials and tribulations they had been through.
  11. Most probably January, February and part of March, 1945.
  12. The striped uniforms of concentration camp survivors.
  13. There were a number of German female SS guards at Belsen who oversaw and tortured the thousands of Jewish female inmates there. Their behavior might have been made worse in part by their desire to impress their male counterparts.
  14. In early December, 1944, Josef Kramer became camp commandant, a post formerly held by Adolf Haas. Under Kramer, Bergen-Belsen became a concentration camp. The internal management of the camp was placed in the hands of prisoner overseers as was done in other concentration camps. In order to retain their posts or from sheer sadism, a number felt compelled to demonstrate their ruthlessness. Polia's description of the brutal Jewish female functionaries as "Turkish or Romanian" is highly dubious, especially since Turkey was neutral during World War II. It should be noted that after the war Kramer and other SS administrators of the camp, including sixteen women, were tried for their crimes at Belsen. Kramer and eleven others were condemned to death and executed. Nineteen were imprisoned and fourteen were acquitted.
  15. No doubt she means "lunch" time.
  16. This routine was part of the senseless labor in Bergen-Belsen and other camps, designed to weaken and inflict pain on the prisoners and minimize any chance of revolt.
  17. Despite Polia's mention of a dentist and a doctor, there was no real medical care for Bergen-Belsen detainees at the time.
  18. During the final months of the war, the Allies, with complete air supremacy, bombed Germany relentlessly—often with dire consequences for both German combatants and non-combatants and prisoners.
  19. Dachau was established on March 10, 1933. It was the first concentration camp organized by the SS and the model and training ground for all other SS-operated camps. At least 32,000 human beings perished at Dachau during the twelve years of its existence, including inmates subjected to barbarous pseudo-medical experiments conducted there.
  20. Jews were among the inmates who were attempting to assume control of the camp after most of the SS guards had fled, leaving a garrison of about two hundred to defend the camp.
  21. American soldiers did in fact kill the SS troops manning the guard towers. Several others were killed by Americans who were incensed and sickened by the gruesome sights they encountered upon entering the camp. Some inmates also took retribution against their SS tormentors. However, as Polia indicates, the vast majority of the remaining SS guards were imprisoned.
  22. Following the war, survivors and various tracing services posted their names on lists to facilitate searching for relatives. It was no doubt by perusing these lists that Polia's relatives discovered that she was alive. Between the time of her liberation from Dachau and the time she arrived in Paris at the beginning of 1946, there is no indication as to where Polia was recuperating.
  23. These were most probably cards with various images designed to evoke emotional and psychological responses from subjects. Polia's responses indicate that she was projecting her own feelings and experiences onto the images.
  24. The supremely tragic losses endured by Polia and other survivors included loss of family, loss of home, loss of friends and acquaintances, loss of culture, loss of possessions, loss of dignity, and often loss of faith.
  25. For many survivors the ultimate fate of their families remained unknown. Polia was among the lucky and plucky few Polish Jews who survived for five years under German occupation. Some three million other Polish Jews were liquidated.
  26. "Soutien gorge" is a French expression for "brassiere." Polia was being trained in brassiere making in the ORT school.
  27. Though stateless, Polia was more fortunate than many DPs at the time who were languishing in refugee camps in Germany, Austria and Italy. Most wished to emigrate to Palestine but were denied entry by the British.
  • Contributors to this text:
  • Transcription : Janina Wurbs
  • English translation : David P. Boder
  • Footnotes : Elliot Lefkovitz