Ziuta Hartman, 88, could hardly believe her eyes. Her son, Haim, showed her on the computer screen a Polish television report saying the Warsaw municipality had awarded her honorary citizenship for her role in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
That was two weeks ago. Yesterday Hartman's sons received the title with three other recipients, including former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski, in Warsaw's Royal Castle, the official residence of Poland's monarchs from yesteryear.
Pictures from Hartman's past ran through her mind, she said on Thursday. How she left her family in Kielce and fled to the Warsaw Ghetto. How she met Avraham Rodel, from her home town, in the ghetto, and he suggested she join the ZZW - the Jewish Military Organization, the Beitar underground organization that fought in the uprising. That was a year before the larger Warsaw Uprising.
She would leave the ghetto to the so-called Aryan side through the sewage canals, smuggling in guns, food and medicines in a false-bottomed bucket. She had a cyanide pill in case she got caught.
"I used to go back and forth, back and forth - I didn't think what would happen the next minute," Hartman said in her small room in a Tel Aviv home for the elderly.
In the upper part of the bucket she would pile small fish whose stench was so bad the Germans immediately let her pass. "Wonderful" is the way she describes the feeling of walking in the sewer tunnels. "Now when I look back on it, it was the only place that was quite safe," she said.
In April 1943, when the Ghetto uprising began, Hartman was posted on the roof of a building. At one point she was asked to go down to treat an injured man.
In her testimony to Yad Vashem - The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, she said that "after a few hours ... we had to come out, and the injured man was shot in the head and fell down. It was the first time from the beginning of my time in the Ghetto when I said 'why him and not me?'"
She was caught and taken to Umschlagplatz, from where Jews were gathered for deportation. From there she was sent to the Majdanek extermination camp. She recalled being flogged 25 times as punishment for not standing up straight in an inspection.
After the war, she returned to Kielce and found that her father had died two years earlier in Russia. Her mother had died at Treblinka.
She heard that her brother was living in Israel and decided to leave Poland. Crossing the border to Czechoslovakia she made a vow never to return. She kept the vow and did not go to Warsaw to collect her award last week. Her two sons attended the ceremony in her place.
"I think I'm the last one left alive now," she said on Thursday. Asked why she agreed to receive the honorary citizenship, she said "I'm accepting it on behalf of those who perished. I can close the circle. After all, it's the Warsaw municipality that is doing it and the whole world can hear it. It makes me proud."
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