In Cellars, Pits and Attics
By deciding to hide Jews, the lives of rescuers changed drastically, and they were condemned to living in fear. From that moment on, their lives revolved around the Jews they were trying to save; in turn, the Jews in hiding, confined for an indefinite time to crowded hideouts, became totally dependent on their benefactors.
Living conditions in hiding were extremely difficult. The victims were helpless, and completely at the mercy of their rescuers. The harsh physical conditions that prevailed in hiding places – in pits, cellars and attics – the fugitives’ terror and fear of their persecutors, the constant tension experienced by people shut in together for months and sometimes years on end – all these exacted a high toll from the Jews in hiding. "A pressure cooker" was how Nechama Herzhaft described her experience of living in an attic in the train station in Sambor in eastern Galicia. There Wladyslaw Bonkowski, the owner of the train station restaurant, hid a number of families – 16 people in all – for over a year, from June 1943 to August 1944. The paralyzing fear of being caught and the need to keep silent made the situation tremendously difficult for both children and parents. The Jewish fugitives mostly had very little reading materials if any, or anything else with which they could occupy themselves. Sometimes children had to be restrained to ensure they kept quiet. The difficult experiences in the "pressure cooker" sometimes caused a complete breakdown in spirit, as it became increasingly difficult to maintain human dignity and impossible to secure any privacy even for their most basic needs. Under the extremely stressful conditions of the hideaway, men, woman and children were completely exposed to one another at all times. There was no chance of intimacy or any private space, and the children were witness to their parents’ helplessness and absolute dependence on their rescuers.
The difficulties were suffered not only by the Jews in hiding; those looking after them also paid a high price. Beyond the very real dangers posed to the lives of the rescuers, the decision to give shelter to refugee Jews meant that the family would have to give up their usual routine for an unknown period of time. Hiding other people also meant that the family was taking upon itself an additional financial burden, as well as social, and sometimes also familial, restrictions. There was the constant danger of denunciation by neighbors, and sometimes even by family members. The family could no longer invite friends to their home, and every knock at the door could mean that the terrible end had come. Moreover, by opening their home to persecuted Jews, the rescuers admitted strangers into the intimacy of their family life for an unknown period of time.
The decision to hide Jews was not self-evident by any means, and in many cases there were differences of opinion among members of the rescuing families themselves. The decision to hide Jews demanded a long-term commitment on the part of the rescuers, and sometimes, when the danger increased, the benefactors’ resolve waned. Thus, in addition to their terror of being discovered by the Nazi murderers, being cut off from their previous lives and not knowing about the fate of the rest of their family, the fear that their benefactors might at any moment decide that they were no longer willing to take the risks involved in hiding them hovered constantly in the air. Their helplessness led the hidden Jews to do whatever they could to avoid undermining their rescuers’ resolve. Children overcame their sadness at being separated from their parents, did not complain, and said nothing about their difficulties in adapting. They did whatever they could not to be a burden. Even the youngest children made great efforts to endear themselves to their rescuers. The abandonment they had experienced bolstered their tendency to suppress their feelings and keep them under wrap – they feared becoming close to people or places, lest they once again be forced to leave them.