‘When they came into the apartment to take them, I said, “Either we all go or nobody goes.” The four Germans just laughed and pushed me into a corner. Mom told me to take care of my brother and sister. I slipped her what little money I had. Then the soldiers marched them to the train. Mom said she’d get in touch with me as soon as they settled into their new life and new jobs in the Ukraine. Those are the last words I heard her say. “I’ll contact you as soon as I can.” Dad just cried and hung on her arm.’
The deportations go on all week. On the final day William stands beside his girlfriend while armed men take her family. This, the 7 June 1942, is the worst day of Rosalie’s life.
‘The Germans came pounding on the door of this nightmare room,’ she says. ‘My baby brother was hanging on my legs because the shouting scared him. He asked me why he couldn’t stay. I told him: “Honey, you don’t have permission.” In the middle of the room Helena Baum holds a small suitcase containing socks and underwear for the youngsters. She wears a coat with gold coin buttons that will end up in Berlin with other loot from the dead. Still weak from her mastectomy, she ignores as long as possible the shouts of two steel-helmeted Waffen SS infantrymen. She has a covenant to arrange with William. We heard a rifle outside the door – loud – and a woman shrieking in the street because the Germans just shot her son. Rose’s Mom didn’t even blink. She said, “William, you know I like you, but I can’t leave my daughter here with you unless you promise me you’ll marry her. There has to be a proper wedding with a rabbi and someone from City Hall. And you have to give me your word you won’t touch her until after the ceremony.” I said, “Sure, Mrs Baum, I give you my word.” She said, “All right, then, Rose, you can stay.” Then the Germans grabbed her and pushed her out the door with the kids.’
In the next raid on the ghetto, William’s brother Bronek is caught walking the streets without his ID and deported. So is Zofi, the shy 15-year-old cousin who always begged William to sing at family functions. For safety’s sake, Rosalie moves into William’s apartment. ‘She slept with my sister and I slept in the front room. Ten days later we got married the way her Mom wanted. We didn’t have any nice linen so strangers raised a rag up over our heads in this same apartment. The rabbi said what he said. We said what we had to say. That was it – man and wife. I was 23. Rose was 19. Somebody found a half-bottle of wine so I drank a toast and broke the glass. We were all wondering how we were going to stay alive.’ Rosalie would prefer not to say her vows in old borrowed clothes, but is grateful for the presence of the rabbi from her father’s synagogue.
‘He did his best to cheer everybody up. He said, “O, our friend Baum’s little daughter is getting married! How can I marry such a baby?” My grandmother Sarah and William’s sister were the only other people I knew in the room. I found my grandmother wandering the streets after the Germans took the aunt she lived with, the one who owned the dress shop and loved fancy hats. Sarah was a sweet old lady, in shock and very confused. She had been hiding in alleys and doorways while the soldiers killed people. This is the woman who sang me to sleep with old lullabies every night when I was a baby. She was a very devout person who never put a crumb in her mouth without first saying a blessing. After the wedding, I hid her in the attic above the apartment. The Germans kept raiding and killing and I wanted to make sure they didn’t get her. She was the only family I had left. When we thought danger was coming I would tell her to lie flat on the floor in a corner and not move or cough. Then I would cover her with newspapers. That sounds stupid, I’m sure, but I couldn’t think of anything better. The last time I saw her she told me she didn’t want me to save her any more. She said she was old already and her sore foot hurt a lot and she was tired of being hungry. I went out and begged for a slice of bread so she could eat something. A slice of bread was like a million dollars and it took me hours to find one. When I came back with the food she was gone. For two days I literally could not speak. I was an orphan now and completely in shock from all the chaos around us. William helped me get a hold of myself. He knew the Germans would get me next if I didn’t.’
During the June terror in the ghetto, 300 Jews are shot dead and 6,000 shipped east to the Belzec death camp. All are offloaded, gassed with carbon monoxide and cremated. Among them are Sarah, Helena, Lucy, Henry, Bertha, Michael, Bronek and Zofi. In Kraków, people continue to believe their deported relatives are safe. William wholeheartedly believes his parents have been sent to the Ukraine to begin new jobs in war factories. ‘That’s what the Germans told us. Nobody thought they’d murder everyone. Even after they put us through three years of hell and made us live in the ghetto it was still inconceivable. But the day they took Rose’s family I saw soldiers shoving children onto a transport train. One of them kicked a little girl so hard he could have broken her back. That gave me a real bad feeling. So almost three years after the invasion my eyes finally started to open. It was way too late to do anything then.’
In July William gets a letter from the dead. A gentile woman delivers a folded piece of paper to the main ghetto gate, something Zofi passed to her at Belzec. William stands by the gate absorbing his cousin’s girlish handwriting. She says that when Bronek stepped down from the boxcar the SS guards motioned him into the group of men selected to live. Bronek didn’t read the situation correctly and assumed that the men in this group were about to be shot. When the guards weren’t looking, he snuck back into the mass of people chosen for death. A verbatim translation: ‘He thought they took him to shoot, so he smuggled himself into the fire.’
William stares at the blue-black calligraphy on paper blazing white in the sun. In the loopy script the word ‘fire’ stands out starkly. Tucking the letter into his jacket pocket he hurries back to the apartment to check on his wife. Whatever this fire might be he knows it took a miracle to keep her out of it. Rosalie is still amazed by her good luck.
‘I was in Peace Square waiting in a long line the day before they took my family. I was going to beg for some little job to save my neck. The Germans had just made their final announcement: get a stamp on your card or else. I was standing there and out of nowhere a man walked up in a tailored tan suit and matching hat. He looked at me and said, “You are much too pretty to be in this line.” He walked me to the front of the line and told a soldier to give me a work permit. The soldier stamped my card without saying a word. Then the man smiled and walked away. I didn’t have time to thank him or even think to beg him to do the same thing for my Mom and sister. Who had ever heard of Oskar Schindler back then? May his name be blessed.’
In 1943 William and Rosalie Schiff, newly married in the Kraków Ghetto, were forcibly separated and sent on individual journeys through a ‘surreal maze of hate’. Saved by the legendary Oskar Schindler, they were reunited at the Płaszów work camp, where they were at the mercy of the bestial SS commandant Amon Göth (played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List). When Rosalie was shipped out for a work detail at another camp, William stowed away on a train, desperate to catch up with her; but the train took him to the notorious Auschwitz death camp instead. By turns riveting, harrowing and moving, Even to the Edge of Doom tells the story of two young people who stayed alive against the odds to find one another again.
Extracted from Even to the Edge of Doom by William and Rosalie Schiff and Craig Hanley