I was born after the war in Siedlce (Shedlitz), Poland, my parents’ hometown. I was a few months old when we moved to France, where we lived for a short period of time, and from there we left for Israel, where we settled. I was about a year old when we got there.
An only child, I grew up in Tel Aviv, in a silent house. It was not an unhappy home, just silent. Neither my father, nor my mother ever spoke to me about their Holocaust experiences. There were other survivors in our neighborhood; in fact, all of our relatives and family friends were Holocaust survivors. No one spoke to me directly about the Holocaust. They would occasionally whisper among themselves, and although I understood Polish at the time, I didn’t know what they were talking about. I also remember that some of them suffered all sorts of mysterious illnesses, infirmities, and every so often a few would disappear for extended periods of much needed “rest.” I didn’t think there was anything unusual about those people. I thought that was the social norm and that’s how adults are, and that’s how they behave. I accepted it.
I attended a unique elementary school that I loved. We had wonderful teachers and an exceptional music program; we joined youth movements and had fun, and I made close friends there. There was no Shoah in my school. I felt as if the kids there had no Holocaust connections.
My father died of cancer when I was ten years old. My mother, who had held a senior position in a large Israeli company, worked full time from my early childhood until her retirement. I became quite independent early on. My school was located in another part of the city, and to get there and back home, I navigated busy Tel Aviv streets on my own, and took public transportation. We fully integrated into Israeli culture and society, and with time I completely forgot the Polish language.
The only frightening thing that has remained with me throughout my childhood and beyond, was hearing my mother crying in her sleep at night. It used to wake me up, and I would go to her room and wake her up, asking her if she had a bad dream, and she would always say, yes. Many years later I came to associate my mother’s night-crying with her Holocaust experience.
This may explain my readiness to get involved with the Generations project now, but there is more. I credit a friend of mine who is neither a survivor, nor a 2nd Generation member, who has, not very long ago, unlocked the door to my hidden chambers of silence, freeing me to safely give voice to things untouched and unsaid. When she asked me to join this initiative, I knew that the time has come for me to open those doors for others, to share experiences with them, and to make a difference.
My sister-in-law, Raya Yuval, who had known my mother for many years and was very fond of her, was very pleased to hear about my decision to join the Generations Project. When she found out that my husband Yoni and I planned to visit Israel in October 2012, along with two of our children, Noam and Ilan, she decided to give me a special gift. She arranged for a personalized, guided tour at Yad Vashem.
Shortly after we arrived in Israel, a Yad Vashem historian contacted me by phone. It was a long conversation, in which she asked many questions. I had very little information about my parents’ pre-war life and Holocaust experiences. She assured me that she and her colleagues would research my family’s history and would organize our tour around Siedlce (Shedlitz), my parents’ hometown. I was profoundly moved by that promise.
The results of the research astounded me. It turns out that my father, Abraham Halber, was rescued by a Polish woman, Agnieszka Budna-Widerschal, who was originally from Gydinia, a port city on the south coast of the Baltic Sea. Shortly after the war broke out, Gydinia was captured by the Germans, who proceeded to murder most of its inhabitants, and deport the rest to the east. Agnieszka managed to make her way to Siedlce, half of the population of which was Jewish. By then Siedlce, too, was under German occupation, and she worked as a cleaning woman for the German Criminal Police (KRIPO).
On August 21, 1942, the Nazis, along with their Polish and Ukrainians collaborators surrounded Siedlce’s “Large Ghetto” and deported all of its ten thousand Jews to Treblinka. The two thousand Jews that lived in the “Small Ghetto” were sent to Forced Labor Camps in town and the surrounding area. By 1943, they too were being deported to the death camps, or murdered in the labor camps.
My father had been working as a forced laborer in the German Criminal Police (KRIPO), and Agnieszka knew that he was Jewish. Upon realizing that his life was in danger, she was determined to act. She moved to an apartment with an attic, where she hid him, along with his two brothers, Isaac and Melech, and three other Jewish men.
How did she manage to do that in a tiny apartment, under the constant threat of searches, denunciations and executions? How did she feed seven people when food was so scarce? Agnieszka just did, never thinking that she deserved any compensation.
Following liberation by the Red Army in the summer of 1944, she married Motl Galitzky, one of the six men she rescued, and they had a daughter. Motl died of an illness in 1946, and when the daughter was eight years old, she was pushed by a Polish girl onto a train track and was killed by a passing train. According to Agnieszka, that was an act of revenge for her having rescued Jews during the war. She later remarried, and her second husband was Israel Widerschal, another survivor; in 1958 they immigrated to Israel.
In 1978, Agnieszka Budna-Widerschal was recognized as a Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem. My cousin, Michael Halber, the son of my father’s brother Isaac, was present at the ceremony, along with the descendants of the men she had rescued.
Our tour concluded with a walk through Yad Vashem’s Boulevard of the Righteous among the Nations, and when we reached the tree bearing Agnieszka’s name, we stopped.
With this I would like to pay homage to my father’s rescuer Agnieszka Budna-Widerschal.