The Full Story

Paula Popowski was born on January 29, 1923 in Kaluszyn, Poland. She grew up in an Orthodox family and went to a Hebrew kindergarten called "Gan Yeladim" (meaning "kindergarten" in Hebrew) that was sponsored by Zionist organizations. After that, she attended seven years of public school, which was customary at the time; there was no high school. Paula's grandfather built and operated the only flourmill in Kaluszyn, supplying all of the town's bakers. In fact, the mill supplied not only Kaluszyn, but also surrounding cities, including Warsaw. He ran the business with help from his son and two son-in-laws.

The war broke out in Poland in 1939. In 1940, the mill was taken away from Paula's family. A ghetto was established in Kaluszyn, and her family's property was included in the "Jewish quarters." Although there were not walls encircling the area, they were forbidden to leave. The family couldn't make a living during this time, but luckily they had some savings. Still, there wasn't enough. Food was scarce:

Even for the Poles, it was not available. But at least they could travel. We were not allowed to go on a train. We were not allowed to go on a bus. Whatever they could bring in—a little bit in the Jewish quarters—they brought in. And those who had money, could still buy some. Not too many people had money. It so happened that we had some savings.

In July of 1942, the Germans began to take Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. Although Jews had not been taken from Kaluszyn yet, Paula learned from escapees from neighboring cities that they were being exterminated in Treblinka. They prepared to leave. To survive, Paula's parents sewed buttons of gold coins into her dress:

When they jumped the train, they came and they told people what was going on. And at that time, most of the people were so resigned. Of course, it was already three years of war. Limitations unbelievable. Tortures. The conditions were not humane. So, our parents told us, 'We've got those gold coins, let's do something with them. Let's do it in case you're going to need it. So you can survive.' We didn't actually talk about survival. We talked just: 'maybe somebody going to take you in.'

The coins were gold 5-ruble pieces Paula's parents had saved from World War I, when Poland was under Russian rule. Paula had recently had a dress made, and there was leftover fabric, so they covered the coins in the fabric to make new buttons. They also took out the soles of their ski shoes and made indentations for more coins. The coins in her shoes didn't interfere with walking, but the dress was very heavy. The dress was crucial to the sisters' survival, as it was often necessary to pay people off to hide their identities or provide them with shelter. She guarded the dress night and day and wore it almost all the time.

After the dress was made, Paula and her sister Hannah went voluntarily to a German labor camp. She left on a Wednesday, and that Friday the Germans took all the Jews from Kaluszyn. She found out that her family had been killed when a Pole came to the labor camp and said that all the Jews had been taken from the mill. Paula and Hannah were the only ones left. While in the labor camp, she slept in her dress because she had no nightclothes.

In November 1942, the sisters met a Pole who took them to Warsaw. At the time, Paula was 20 and Hannah was 17. In Warsaw they were able to pay someone to get the false documents that would grant them Polish identification cards. Paula's new name was Apolonia Borkowski. Paula spoke Yiddish at home, but grew up attending Polish schools, which gave her an important advantage—she could speak Polish effortlessly, without an accent that would reveal her true identity.

Paula stayed in Warsaw from November 1942 to April 1943. In April 1943, Paula heard the first shot of the Warsaw uprising. From the Polish side, she saw Jews being taken away from the ghetto. She saw trucks and shootings going on day and night, and the situation became dangerous for Paula and Hannah. The sisters discussed the situation with their boarder, who suggested they move to Czestochowa. They left Warsaw, the ghetto still in flames, and moved temporarily into a Catholic widow's apartment. Just to have a place to sleep, they paid ten times as much for room and board as a regular boarder would.

Jews in hiding were always on the move, because one family rarely was willing to keep them for long. There was a network of Jews in hiding; they did not talk to other Jewish people during the day. The network was informal, based on word-of-mouth. Sometimes one ran across a Pole that was willing to help, or at least look for someone else who was brave enough to help. Even if non-Jews were willing to help, they were often too afraid—one of Paula's friends, for example, found a place to stay with a Pole that was badly in need of money. After just a couple days, the friend was asked to leave, because the person could not sleep at night for fear of what would happen if he/she was found harboring a Jew. There were posters all around town warning people of hiding Jews.

In Czestochowa, they met a man who owned a glass factory. They had to tell him they were Jewish, but he told them that if they found work permission they could stay with him. After a couple of months, they had to leave because there were suspicions about why the girls were staying there. Their boss had a connection with a convent in the city, so they talked to the Mother Superior, and explained that they were Jewish. They stayed at the convent until the end of the war, but continued to work at the glass factory. Work began at 7 am, and it was a 45-minute walk. The factory had to close every day at 4 pm so that the workers would have time to get home before martial law, which took effect at 8 pm. Nobody was allowed to go out past 8 o'clock, but sometimes during the winter Paula and Hannah would sneak out to see some Jewish people that they had contact with in hiding.

The nuns lived in a house together on 14 Wesola Street. They all shared a room. There were ten single beds; the nuns each had their own and Paula and Hannah shared one. The nuns were very fair, in particular the Mother Superior, Sister Vita, who was "like an angel." She was the only one that knew they were Jewish. Every Sunday, Paula and Hannah went to church and learned the catechism. Paula's neighbors in Kaluszyn were all Catholics, along with the workers in her family's flourmill, but they did not socialize with them often, and were not familiar with the religion. Everything was new.


Paula and Hannah could not maintain any sense of their Jewish identity during this time; they were extremely afraid of any "slip of the tongue." They went to great lengths to disguise themselves, writing fictional letters to fictional relatives, to "keep in touch" with their family. They concocted stories, that they were orphans, and their parents had been killed during a bombardment, and they only had distant relatives left. They knew very little about what was happening to Jews outside of Czestochowa. Paula knew that they were being exterminated, and she assumed that they were all dead. However, one day, coming home from work, she realized that there were still Jews alive in Poland:

We used to walk to work in the morning, for instance, or in the afternoon walking back from work. Sometimes we used to walk on the sidewalk; there was wide sidewalk. They were trying to transport walking Jews from one place to the other, and they walked them on the middle of the street. With the yellow stars. And we walked by. We were so afraid that we just walked by; we didn't pay attention. We said, "What are the Jews doing here?" But then one co-worker in the glass factory told us that her father works in the ammunition factory and she said, "You know what? There are still Jewish people there." That's how we found out.

In the beginning of 1944, some sisters visited Paula and Hannah at the glass factory to inform them that SS soldiers had been looking for them at the convent, and would return later when they came home from work. It turned out that the officer was not an SS man, but a Pole who was serving the Germans. After debating about what to do, the girls decided to tell him the same story they had told everyone else. There was nowhere to run, and if they could convince him that they were not Jewish, it would confirm their Polish identity. For some reason he believed them, and the Germans never bothered them again.

In January 1945, the Russians liberated Czestochowa:


We knew that something was going to happen soon because the offensive had started, and when the Russians came in they caught us in the shop. In the morning when we went to work we saw the soldiers marching, the German soldiers, and all of a sudden the electricity went off and the shooting started and we tried to get home. We went from those people to the Russian soldiers, the German soldiers, and finally back to the house, and then they had dogfights in the air. About two days later we went back out on the streets, and the Germans were POWs at that time.

We thought we were the only ones left. We didn't have any contact with any Jewish people at that time, and we thought we were the only ones left. The Mother Superior said to us, "Now you are free," but free for what? And that's the first time we really cried. The whole time we never cried. That's the first time we really sat down and cried, because we said, "What's now?"

Paula and her sister stayed at the convent for a few weeks after liberation, because they were uncertain what to do next. Geographically, they were on the west side of the Vistula River, the main river in Poland. The east side of the river had been liberated in 1944, and shortly after liberation they received a letter from an old friend who had been on the east side, and out of hiding for a bit, informing them that he was going back to Kaluszyn, two hundred miles from where they were:

It took us three days to walk, to get there. We went by train. We went by horse and buggy. We went by foot. We went with wounded soldiers from the front, because the war was still going on and, finally, we walked the rails with the train, because we were afraid the train wouldn't stop at that station, until we got to Kaluszyn. Three days.

Kaluszyn was a dead city, but there were people there they knew. One family they had known before the war had stayed in hiding the whole time, and emerged thinking they were the only ones left, just like Paula and Hannah. At this point, the sisters finally learned the details to the fate of their family: "There was the janitor who used to work for us, our janitor, who lived still on the premises, and they all told us what happened. My parents were killed in Kaluszyn. My grandmother, my aunt and uncles, my cousins, everybody." Their parents hid in a house near the mill for seven days, until the Germans found them. They were kept overnight in jail, then taken to the cemetery and murdered.

After about two months in Kaluszyn, the Poles killed two Jews that Paula knew. Afraid to stay there longer, they moved again. They went to Warsaw, but after two uprisings and other damage from the war, the city was practically destroyed. They returned to Kaluszyn to try to get the family's flourmill back. The home was destroyed, but the mill was still running. However, the Germans had taken it, and then nationalized it. They got a Jewish lawyer who had been in hiding during the war and was helping Jews get their property back, and then went to court. The only properties that could be returned to private owners were ones that employed less than ten workers, and Paula's family's flourmill employed about fifteen, so it stayed nationalized. The family never received reparations. Since then, the mill has been torn down.

As a last resort, they went to the post office to see if by chance they had received any mail. The postman, who knew them from before the war, presented them with a letter from the United States. The letter had come to them through a long series of connections—Paula's aunt married someone from Palestine and went there before the war, in 1936. There, she found that some old friends, Joseph and Rachel Zucker, lived in Charleston, and she wrote to them, telling them about her family in Kaluszyn. The Zuckers had known Paula's family in Kaluszyn, before she and her sister were born. They responded quickly to Paula's address in Kaluszyn, offering help to move to Palestine or the United States. Palestine was poor, and they couldn't stay in Poland.

They decided to go through a DP (displaced persons) camp in Germany in order to get permission to go to the U.S. Russian soldiers smuggled them through the border between Poland and Germany in a covered truck. The soldiers sat in the front, and the girls sat in the back. When the Russians showed their cards, they were granted entry to Berlin. Upon arriving in Berlin, Paula and her sister went straight to the American zone, where they stayed for three months in German army barracks. They literally had nothing; they were supported by UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

The DP camp was eventually liquidated, and they went to Landshut, a city near Munich, where there was a reunion of people from Kaluszyn: "It was people who didn't know each other even, in Kaluszyn. But after the war everybody was sisters and brothers. Because of course there were so few of us." Here, Paula met Henry, her future husband. She didn't know Henry before the war, but had known his younger brother as a schoolboy. After the war, West Germans were required to register their apartments to temporarily house refugees. In Landshut, Paula, Henry, and their newborn son Mark stayed with a German family. They slept in their beds and used their kitchen and utensils. The family's son was an air force sergeant in the German army, and he was stationed in Poland near Treblinka. In Paula's experience, the Germans were extremely accommodating after the war.

Henry and Paula were married in 1947, in Ulm, Germany, a town famous for being the birthplace of Albert Einstein. Now that Paula was married, gaining permission to travel to the U.S. was more difficult than ever. In 1924, the U.S. passed the Immigration Act, which put quotas on the number of immigrants that could enter the country. The quota system limited the number of people from a particular country to 2% of the number of U.S. citizens from that country. It favored unmarried people under the age of 21, parents or spouses of U.S. citizens, and families skilled in agriculture. Thus, Paula was at an extreme disadvantage; she was married, had a ten-week-old child, and met none of the provisions of the quota. She was told that it would be three years before she could obtain a visa for her family to enter the U.S. In 1948, the President Truman passed the Displaced Persons act, which removed quota limitations on European DPs. Finally, Paula and her family were able to come to the U.S. Her sister was able to leave much earlier.

It took Paula twelve days to get to New York by boat. She had her first Thanksgiving dinner on the boat to New York:

It was an army transport boat, so they had wards for the men and the women with the children, they gave the cabins. So, he came into the cabin and said, "Come on the deck. Let me show you something." And we came on the deck and saw the panorama of New York. After so many days [of] sea and sky, sea and sky, we saw the panorama of New York. But it was too late to unload us. Thursday was Thanksgiving so they couldn't unload it—it was a holiday. So they gave us the first dinner Thanksgiving Day on the boat. First of all, everybody started feeling good because the boat stopped. It was not shaking, and the dinner was so delicious, but we didn't know why they—we thought because they are welcoming us to New York. We didn't know it was Thanksgiving.

When they arrived at Penn Station, there were volunteers from various organizations waiting to welcome them that could speak the languages of the immigrants. The volunteers gave each family $20 for groceries. From there, Paula met Joseph Zucker who sent her to Charleston, where he lived. Adapting to American culture was difficult at first—everything was different. At first, they didn't know the language or how to count the money, and they had a small baby with them. The language barrier was the worst; when they first moved to Charleston, he tried to work at Goer, but was soon laid off for not being able to understand instructions. He decided to peddle, and received credit from the Sam Solomon Company on King Street. Eventually he made enough money peddling to open a small furniture store called Henry's Furniture.

Paula still has a gold coin from her dress. When she and Hannah lived at the convent in Czestochowa, they were able to work and support themselves. They no longer had to pay people off or pay extravagant prices for a place to stay. Of course, they didn't have much, but they made enough to get by, and managed to save three coins. Paula kept one, Hannah kept one, and they gave the third to their uncle who had gone to Palestine before the war.

Source: Interview from Jewish Heritage Collection (May 3, 1997)

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