Holocaust survivor recounts horrific childhood in Poland
Israel Unger’s father carried him in his arms as they were herded to a cattle car.
He looked to his father and asked him to recite the last prayer Jews recite when they consider death imminent.
“I want to go to heaven.”
They repeated the prayer 36 times that day.
Now, 75 years later, Unger wonders what he knew of heaven as a five-year-old.
What concept does a kid have of life and death, he asked.
“I don’t know, but that day I expected to be killed.”
Unger was invited to speak at Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day event on April 12 at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown.
He was raised surrounded by fear, but at 80, after many years as a professor of physical chemistry at UNB, he is calm and collected talking to a roomful of strangers about his life.
He was born in Tarnow, Poland in 1938. Germany invaded his country when Unger was 18 months old.
Before he was taken to the Ghettos with his family, Unger watched as two Nazis ordered his grandfather to leave his one-room apartment with them.
He reached for his prayer bag and tucked it under his arm before leaving. He stood at the top of the staircase, then one of the Nazis pushed him.
As he fell, they shot him.
Unger’s family climbed the Ghettos’ walls when he was five. They found refuge in the attic of a flour mill his father co-owned, he said.
“It was 1943 when the Nazi assault on the Jews reached its full fury.”
Unger spent two years hiding in a space between two rafters of the mill’s attic with his parents, brother, a married couple, two teenage sisters and an older woman.
They survived the Holocaust.
Some of Unger’s other relatives, including his grandfather, didn’t.
Unger doesn’t remember many details of the Second World War but he has worked on filling the gaps.
In 2012 he began research on his book, The Unwritten Diary of Israel Unger, which documents his childhood in Poland.
He found the two sisters he had hidden with in the attic. They told him of their time in hiding, things he couldn’t remember.
He knew a gentile friend of his father had been delivering food to them in the beginning.
The sisters told him that after a few months, when the man stopped coming, they filled food buckets with water and pitas they had made on a hotplate with oats and flour they had taken from the shop below.
More than anything else, Unger remembers the fear.
He didn’t need to hear the sisters’ memories to recall the fear he felt as they had to stay silent to stay safe, he said.
“We knew that the Nazis intended to murder every Jew they could lay their hands on. It was simply a matter of when, where and how.”
After being rounded up into the Ghettos, Jews were taken to the railroad station and forced into cattle cars to be taken to the death camps, said Unger.
“Those occasions had a name in Polish. They were called odeslanie. It quite simply translates to sending away.”
The Soviets arrived before Unger and the others were caught in the attic and sent away.
They had been there two years. It was early in the morning when they heard the small arms fire.
Troops weaved through Tarnow, camouflaged in white against the winter snow.
Those in hiding rushed out to greet the troops. Unger hadn’t walked on stairs in two years.
He stumbled and fell. He landed at the bottom with three Soviet soldiers standing around him. Unger wrapped his arms around the legs of a soldier and kissed his boots.
For the brothers to make it out of the country, they had to become orphans and be separated from their parents.
Somehow his mother and father found the two boys in France. From there, they boarded a ship for Canada where they became citizens in 1956.
It was because of his parents that Unger’s family made it to Canada.
One of his biggest regrets in life is that he didn’t show more appreciation for them. They weren’t very tall, they were shorter than him, he said.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t until after they weren’t around any more that I realized they were giants.”