Interview: Krystyna Chiger, holocaust survivor

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KRYSTYNA Chiger was four years old when the Germans invaded Poland. Her brother Pawel was, as she puts it, “just half a year old”.

Born into a successful, middle-class Jewish family in Lvov, she spent the first years of her life in a grand apartment overlooking one of the most vibrant cities in Poland, now part of the Ukraine. “It was a magical place, a Renaissance city, only it was not the best place to be a Jew,” writes Chiger, with typical restraint, in her memoir.

Lvov, known as Little Venice, was a city of winding cobbled streets opening on to old squares of flowers, fountains, and stone churches. Beneath those streets ran their counterpart: the city sewers, as cold and mysterious as the underbelly of a snake. This network of dark, fetid tunnels would become the family’s home for more than a year. The sewer would save their lives.

Chiger’s first inkling of peril had come on the morning of 1 September, 1939. Chiger’s father took her to the balcony of their apartment. He pointed to the Messerschmitts overhead and told his daughter that the Germans, already at war, were on the outskirts of Lvov. “That was the same year my mother first took me to kindergarten,” she recalls. “I remember holding her hand, not wanting her to leave. It was difficult, but of course it was nothing compared to what was coming. I stood on our balcony with my father and he told me to look up. ‘My Krzysha,’ he said. ‘This is our end.’” As a child, it must have seemed incomprehensible. “Yes,” she says with a tiny, surprising laugh. “I knew it was bad, but of course I didn’t know just how bad.”

Chiger is now 76, a retired dentist living on Long Island with her husband, Marian, also a Holocaust survivor. She has a wonderfully low, cracked, heavily accented voice, as lived in as an old shoe. She laughs softly and often, and believes that humour was essential to her family’s survival.

“Even in the worst hours, we laughed,” she says. “We could somehow always come up with something that would make us burst out laughing. I think that this saved us too. It saved our minds.” Sometimes her voice breaks, as though she is crying, but the extremity of her childhood experience taught her not to cry. Showing fear or making a sound meant capture by the Nazis, which meant the concentration camps, and death. And so, decades on, telling her extraordinary and heartbreaking life story, one of the countless effects of the Holocaust is that Chiger finds it difficult to shed tears.

The story of the survival of a small group of Jews in the sewers of Lvov, aided by a Polish sewer worker called Leopold Socha, has been made into an Oscar-nominated film called In Darkness, directed by Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland. Chiger found out about it only after it was made as Holland did not think anyone involved was still alive. Chiger is the only one.

“My husband sent an email saying little Krzysha is still alive,” she laughs. “We met and are now very good friends. Agnieszka did a very good job with our story, showing what we went through. I felt it had to be somebody from Europe who could make this film. A Hollywood director would not feel it the same.” What was her response when she saw it? “They screened it at a movie theatre in New York for me and my husband,” she says. “I was shocked. It was very difficult to watch. You relive once more what happened. I felt I was still that little girl … though you never forget. Never.”

By 1941 Lvov was under German occupation. The Chigers, who had run a textiles business, were forced into a ghetto along with the rest of the city’s 150,000 Jews. Chiger’s mother, Paulina, worked at Janowska labour camp. Her father, Ignacy, worked in the ghetto as a carpenter and handyman. Any snatched spare moments were spent secretly constructing hiding places for Chiger and her brother, and other Jewish families. Ignacy created false walls and compartments to hide his children, then six and three, sitting them on bedpans so they could relieve themselves and leaving them with a small amount of food. They would stay like this all day – still, silent and terrified. “For hours and hours it was just me and my little brother,” recalls Chiger. “I was so scared. I would hold my brother’s hand all day. Tears would come but I swallowed them. I didn’t make a noise. My brother was so little, I had to take care of him. I never left him alone for a moment. He knew I was there to protect him but I didn’t have anybody to hold my hand. We really didn’t have a childhood.

“Whenever I could hear the footsteps of the Germans or Ukrainians the first thing I would do was hide my brother. I would hide him in a suitcase, pull it under the bed, and then hide myself. He never cried. He never made a sound. He would just wait for me to come and open the suitcase.”

Children are adaptable, Chiger says. They learn quickly what to do to increase the chances of making it through another day. And this, too, is a tragedy. Part of the Nazis’ method of annihilating the Jews was to try to reduce them to the level of animals. “We lived on instinct,” she says. “We really became like animals. We knew when to hide, when to be quiet, when you must not cry or show fear. Other children in the ghetto were the same. It is unbelievable, but it is true.”

During the regular “actions” Jews were rounded up, taken to labour camps or killed on the spot. The Chigers watched many of their relatives, friends and neighbours being taken away. Again and again, because of her parents – their bravery and sheer ingenuity – the family escaped death. “Once my mother pinched our cheeks as the Germans were coming in,” she recalls. “She just kept pinching. I didn’t know what she was doing. She didn’t want the Germans to see we were afraid. She wanted us to look healthy so we would not be taken. I think the Germans respected this. She was such a good psychologist, you know. To know the minds of the Nazis and be able to play against them on the spot like that … unbelievable. Oh, I remember that pinching even now.” She laughs.

On another occasion, Chiger and her mother watched as her father was captured and nearly hanged outside their window. At the last moment, the Nazi commander changed his mind, and they let him go. “The German police taking my father …” says Chiger, her sentences disintegrating. “He was standing there naked … I saw them put the noose around his neck. It was terrible. You can’t forget this. It stays with you all your life. I will never forget.”

Chiger talks of photographs taken in 1943 of her and her brother in the ghetto. They are published in Chiger’s memoir, The Girl in the Green Sweater. They are beautiful portraits. The children are posing innocently, but their eyes betray their sadness. “Yes, it’s true,” Chiger says quietly. “My brother, he looks so innocent, like an angel in that photo. Can you imagine children like this, one and a half million of them, were killed? It’s so difficult to understand.”

On 30 May, 1943, the night of the final liquidation of the Lvov ghetto, the family escaped into the sewers. They entered through a hole that Chiger’s father and a small group of Jewish men had been secretly digging for weeks. “I was so scared, so terrified, I did not want to go,” Chiger remembers. “I saw the dark, empty space below me and I couldn’t do it. My father was already down and begging me, saying ‘come on Krzysha, I will hold you’. In the end my mother had to push me, and my father caught me. It was a seven-metre drop.”

And so began 14 months of living in the sewers amid the waste, worms, rats and the filthy water that threatened to fill the tunnels and drown them when it rained. It was freezing cold and pitch black. Most of the time they were unable to walk or move around easily. Still, the small group of Jews, initially numbering 20 but eventually just ten, made a life underground: births, deaths, conflicts, resolutions, illness, friendship, laughter – everything happened here.

It was Socha, a Polish Catholic sewer worker, who made their survival possible. Initially bringing them food and supplies for money (paid by Ignacy on behalf of the group) he continued to do so long after the money ran out. He risked everything, his own wife and child included. In the film and Chiger’s memoir, Socha comes across as a fascinating, complex, ordinary and heroic man. “We always call him the angel,” Chiger says. “His bright smile … he was so friendly right from the start. He gave us so much hope. He loved children and he loved my brother and me.”

Why does she think he did it? “In the beginning, for the money,” she says after a pause. “But he got to know us. He sympathised with us. He felt sorry for us. And in the end he became like our family. At first he would only stay for a few minutes, just to leave the food and take the money. But then he would stay for hours, talking with my father. He told us things even his wife didn’t know. Maybe it was a kind of redemption for him. He had been a petty thief … but that was his circumstances. He was an orphaned child and this was how he made his living. Inside, he was a great man.”

Socha took extraordinary risks for them on a daily basis. “One time my brother got very sick, his throat, he couldn’t speak …” Chiger says. “When Socha came, my mother told him but he was too afraid to go to the pharmacy. It would look suspicious.” Instead, Socha went away and returned unexpectedly an hour later with the ingredients for a Jewish remedy made with eggs and sugar called kogel mogel. “It was more than one kilometre each way and you had to crawl through a tiny tunnel,” she continues. “Socha had carried four eggs in a handkerchief in his teeth to keep them safe, manoeuvring the whole way on his knees and elbows. He was afraid it would be too late if he waited until the next day.” Another time, when Chiger stopped talking because of the trauma, Socha carried her through the tunnels, opened a manhole and let her catch a glimpse of the world above, to show her that it was still there, that she would walk in it again soon. The shock of it, the memory, brought back her voice.

Life in the sewer went on. “My father taught me how to read, write and count,” Chiger recalls. “He always told me we would be liberated and I would go to school. We kept ourselves occupied. My father liked to do puzzles and he wrote poems, satires and plays in the sewer with parts for all of us. He played intelligentsia, a game I still play now, by myself. He wanted us to remember we weren’t animals, we weren’t the same as the rats – that we were human beings.”

On 27 July, liberation finally came. Socha brought the group out of a manhole into ravaged Lvov where a small crowd had gathered. Of a Jewish population of 150,000 just three nuclear families had survived. The Chigers were one of them.

“My brother was so little he had forgotten how real life looked,” she remembers of that day. “He thought our world was the decay, the rats, and the sewer. He would play with the rats. They were his pets. So when he went up and saw the daylight, the sky, and all the people he got scared and grabbed my mother’s hand. He was crying ‘mama, I want to go back’.”

Life continued to be a struggle after the war. Lvov was under Russian occupation and eventually the family escaped to Krakow. In 1957 they emigrated to Israel and in the 1970s Chiger, her husband and child (they have two children) moved to the US. Her brother died in 1979 in the Israeli army. Her mother died in 2000 at the age of 91.

Her father died in 1975, leaving behind his memoirs, which have been published in Poland. “I could never read it,” Chiger says. “I would read one page, then start to cry. I only read the whole thing a year ago, after I wrote my own book. I want to get it translated into English now. It is such a beautifully written piece of history.”

They never stopped talking about what happened. And Chiger continues to tell her story. “To try to make it easier, to go forward, we must talk about this,” she says, her voice cracking. “It’s very difficult for me. Even talking to you now, I have a stomach ache. But I never saw a psychologist. I always said, ‘nobody else can do this for me. I have to do it myself’. I have to lead a normal life. I tell my children and my grandchildren what happened but this is my package to carry, not theirs. It is a big help for us to talk, to open ourselves up. This shouldn’t be a secret within you. No, you have to talk.”

• In Darkness is at the Glasgow Film Theatre and Dundee Contemporary Arts Cinema until 29 March