Life Beneath the Surface (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 24, March 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A young girl seeks safety in the sewers in a powerful new Holocaust memoir Every so often a Holocaust memoir comes along that transcends the breathless survivor narratives and is recognized as a classic of its kind, such as Elie Wiesel's "Night" or Primo Levi's "Survival in Auschwitz." "The Girl in the Green Sweater," a first-person account by Krystyna Chiger, a retired 73-year-old dentist written with Daniel Paisner, a professional ghostwriter, could possibly become such a book. Holocaust scholars say it is the only known wartime record of survival in this fashion, in which Chiger tells of the 14 months she spent hiding from the Nazis with her parents, younger brother and ten other Jews in the rat-infested sewer system of Lvov. This city, once home to the third largest concentration of Jews in Poland, is now in the Western Ukraine and known by its Ukrainian name of L'viv. The green sweater was knitted for the young Krystyna before the war by a grandmother who was murdered by the Nazis, and she wore it throughout her confinement in the sewers. Currently on permanent display at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., it is meant to symbolize her ordeal as well as the agony of all Jewish children during the Holocaust. Unlike Levi's memoir, written in 1946, or Wiesel's book, penned in 1955, a decade after his liberation, Krystyna Chiger's account was written many years after the events described. Small details, she acknowledges, were clarified by conversations she had with her parents in the years after the war. Born in 1935, she was only seven years old when the sewer ordeal began. She also relied on a journal of events kept by her father. This document has already been used as source material for the book, "In the Sewers of Lvov," written by British television documentary-maker Robert Marshall and published by Scribner's in 1991. Chiger herself was interviewed for this earlier work. But, she emphasizes, "I remember what happened so many years ago [like] yesterday." Indeed, "The Girl in the Green Sweater," with its factual, understated and non-dramatic prose, has the same poignant freshness and lyrical qualities shared by the classics of Holocaust literature. Her story is an amazing tale of endurance. Chiger points out that only three of many thousands of Jewish Lvov families survived the war intact. One was hers. But her memoir is also a powerful meditation on good and evil, and the boundless limits of parental love and human decency. Before the outbreak of the war, Ignacy and Paulina (Pepa) Chiger were prosperous fabric merchants. Ignacy had a doctorate in philosophy, but anti-Semitic quotas barred him from teaching. Traditional but not Orthodox, they lived in comfort with their pampered, young daughter, Krystyna, and infant son, Pawel, in Lvov, home to 600,000 Poles and Ukrainians and 150,000 Jews. The author remembers Lvov as a "magical" city of "majestic churches and winding cobblestone streets." It was, however, far from rosy. A pogrom occurred there in 1918, in which between 50 and 150 Jews were slain. Chiger does mention that her father was taunted by anti-Semitic Ukrainians in the prewar years, and that during the Nazi occupation, the Ukrainians "were in many ways worse" than the Germans. "But all I knew was that we lived in a grand apartment and I did not want for anything. I had fine clothes and wonderful toys," she writes. Krystyna's "princess" life was shattered when Lvov and much of eastern Poland became Soviet territory in 1939 as part of the German-Soviet nonaggression pact, which doomed her family and many thousands of Jews who belonged to the merchant class. With the arrival of the Soviets, her father prophetically told her, "This is the end." The Chigers managed to survive the hardships of the Soviet occupation of Lvov during which they were persecuted for having a business and a large apartment. Their private property was confiscated by the regime, but the murderous German reign of terror, which began in June 1941, proved harder to endure. The author watched from her window as, one by one, her cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents were beaten and deported to their deaths. (Graphic descriptions of the punishing conditions, aktionen and selections of Jews for deportation in Lvov are documented in Soviet author Ilya Eherenburg's infamous Black Book, and were cited by Lvov survivors at the Eichmann trial.) Dubbed Ju-Lag by the Nazis, the ghetto was run by Joseph Grzymek, a psychotic, ethnic German from Poznan, who had an obsession with cleanliness and was a crazed killer. But the Chigers were resourceful. In his spare time, Ignacy, a talented carpenter, built clever hiding places for his children; Paulina worked sewing German army uniforms. Krystyna and Pawel adjusted to sitting soundlessly for hours, holding hands in the dark silence waiting for their parents to return from "work," and the little girl looked after her baby brother's basic needs. There were a few close calls, "small miracles," says the author. Once, Grzymek sentenced Ignacy to death by hanging, laughingly changing his mind repeatedly as the noose was being prepared and sending a terrorized Ignacy home naked. Krystyna watched the entire spectacle from her window. Ignacy lived to testify against Grzymek in 1949 at a Warsaw war crimes tribunal, which convicted the Nazi of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to death. Chiger writes that before he was hanged, Grzymek was said to have told witnesses that he always sensed that Ignacy would survive. Following the final and horrifying liquidation of the Lvov ghetto in May 1943 and deportation of the remaining Jews to the Belzec death camp or nearby killing fields, the Chigers and some friends made a daring decision to seek refuge in the city's fetid sewers by furtively digging a hole through a basement floor. They remained there until July 1944, when Russian armies conquered the city. The escape was made possible by a friendship that Ignacy forged with Leopold Socha, a religious Catholic and a petty thief before the war, who took a liking to Paulina and the children and decided to become their savior in order to repent for his lawless prewar ways. With two Polish friends (who were motivated by money), Socha provided the hidden Jews with an endless supply of safety, food, information and, mainly, hope. Initially, 500 frantic refugees of the massacre of the Lvov ghetto's remaining 7,000 Jews sought refuge in the city sewers. Many drowned in the roaring waters of the Peltew River, which flowed through the underground caves, or were killed by Nazis who sent down search dogs and tossed in grenades. Seventy desperate Jews tried to cling to Socha's party. But the Pole could not care for so many people and the group dwindled ultimately to ten, including the two Chiger children. This small band, which included an elderly woman, was forced to squeeze through narrow drainpipes in order to change underground hiding places for fear of being found by sewer workers or inquisitive Nazis. They had to crawl, with a bucket gripped between their teeth, to obtain fresh water from droplets, which spilled from an above-ground street fountain. Despite the nightmarish conditions, the group's desire to survive prevailed. Her family tried to maintain a "normal" existence by keeping up their personal hygiene and changing clothes once a week. Paulina lit candles on Friday nights. Extract from an article in Issue 24, March 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.