Subterranean horror and hope
At the age of 7, in 1943, Krystyna Chiger descended with her family into the sewers of Lvov to escape the Germans, battling hunger, death and disease. Her story has now come to the silver screen, but has ruffled some feathers.
In the introduction to his unpublished memoir, "World in Gloom," Ignacy Chiger wrote: "In the beginning, God created the Heaven and Earth. He settled in Heaven and assigned the Earth to the people. And on the Earth, this happened."
Almost 70 years have passed, but his daughter, Krystyna, still remembers in detail the 14 months of horror that her family went through in the Holocaust. Between June 1, 1943, and the end of July 1944, she hid with her parents and little brother in the sewers of her hometown, Lvov (then in occupied Poland; today Lviv, Ukraine ). In subhuman conditions, the 7-year-old girl managed to survive rats, putrid water, hunger, disease, depression, terror and death, which stalked her around every corner.
Her remarkable family story has been depicted in the Polish film "In Darkness," which has been nominated for an Oscar this year for Best Foreign Language Film.
In a telephone interview last week from her home in New York, Krystyna Chiger shared her memories from those terrifying times, spoke about the lessons she learned in the sewers, and described the friendship she struck up with the film's director, Agnieszka Holland.
"Yes, I remember clearly. An experience of this sort is something that stays with you for the rest of your life. You live with it," she said, when asked about her childhood memories. "Even today, when most of the people I remember are no longer alive, I feel like what happened many years ago happened only yesterday."
At 76, Chiger is the last living member of a group of 11 people, which included her own family, who survived the Holocaust together in the Lvov sewers. "I was terribly scared there. The experiences from there accompany me to this day, and sometimes I wake from them in a fright," she says.
On the eve of World War II, Lvov was one of the biggest centers of Jewish life in Poland. Some 110,000 Jews lived there - a third of the city's population. Three weeks after the war broke out, Lvov was conquered by the Soviets. In June 1941, after the Germans had abrogated their non-aggression pact with the USSR, they marched into the city. The same day they commenced the murdering of its Jewish inhabitants.
In November the ghetto was established. Krystyna's father, who was handy with tools, did odd jobs there. A fake permit that he had made for his wife enabled her to remain in the ghetto and leave each day to work at a nearby labor camp, instead of being sent to the death camps.
Chiger: "[My brother] Pawel, who was 4 years old at the time, and I stayed home alone when our parents went to work. My father made hiding places for us in the apartment, and told us that we were not to come out. I was always terrified we would be caught."
Over time she learned to distinguish the footsteps of German soldiers and their Ukrainian collaborators from those of her Jewish neighbors and relatives.
"When I would hear the Germans," she continues, "I would immediately go into the hiding place. Sometimes I sat there for hours, waiting for my parents to return. It was terrifying. I sat there quietly crying so they wouldn't hear me. I held my little brother's hands. I told him it would be all right and not to be scared."
In June 1943, the Germans decided to liquidate the ghetto. Toward midnight on May 30, they began dragging the Jews from their dwellings there, and herding them onto trucks destined for the death pits. Chiger's father realized that his last chance to save his family was, quite literally, to go underground. Using spoons, forks and small tools, he and several acquaintances dug a hole in a concrete floor in one of the houses - straight down into the city's massive sewer system.
"I remember the night of the final liquidation, the last action ... the sounds of the commotion and chaos, the shouting and the confusion. I remember the sheer black terror," Chiger writes in her book, "The Girl in the Green Sweater: A Life in Holocaust's Shadow" (St. Martins Press, 2008; a Hebrew edition is scheduled for publication by Dani Books in April, to coincide with the local debut of Holland's film ).
"There was our group of a dozen or so, desperate to avoid capture, scrambling to fit through the hole ... Together we spilled into the sewer, hoping to find sanctuary among the rats and the filth.
"I remember the small, dank cavern where we sat ... It was miserable. There were spider webs so thick that they could slow the rats that seemed to occupy this space in droves .... The walls were slick with the sludge and dampness of the sewer. Tiny yellow worms covered every surface. The smell was fetid and dank and awful. There was mud and small puddles of wastewater around our feet."
In order to get drinking water, one of the men in the group had to crawl two kilometers through a maze of narrow pipes with a kettle held between his teeth, until he got to a spot where water from a fountain outside trickled down into the sewer through a hole. The sewer dwellers overcame flooding that threatened to drown them; a fire that nearly suffocated them; and Nazis who kept pursuing them.
"In the sewer, I was still scared, of course," Chiger recalls, "but at least I was with Papa and Mama. Then it was a different kind of fear. I had someone I could rely on. Someone to support me."
But the family could not have made it on their own. Their "guardian angel," as Chiger calls him, was Leopold Socha, a local crook who worked as a maintenance man in the sewers of Lvov. His chance encounter with the Jews hiding in his subterranean kingdom led to an agreement, under which he helped them hide from the Germans and supplied them with food and other vital necessities. At first he did this for money, albeit at great personal risk to himself and his family. Later, when the money ran out, he went on helping them gratis.
Chiger: "I remember the face, the big eyes, and his smile. From the first moment I looked at him I believed that everything would be all right and that he would take care of us. I loved him and he was like a father for me." She remembers that Socha also brought them candles for Shabbat and even took their clothes to be cleaned and pressed.
When Krystyna sank into despair, Socha was the one who cheered her up. "He took me on his shoulders through the tunnels, to a point from where you could see sunlight beyond the manhole cover. I looked up and he said to me, 'Look around and take a deep breath. You need patience, child. You need to be very strong and to hang on. Soon you too will be able to play with the children outside there.' That was my medicine."
A year after the war ended, a Soviet military truck hit Socha as he was riding his bicycle, killing him. "It was a great tragedy. To this day I think about it. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, I light a memorial candle," Chiger says. In recognition of their actions, in 1978, Yad Vashem awarded Socha and his wife the title "Righteous Among the Nations."
Where did you get the strength to survive for so long under such conditions?
Chiger: "I drew strength from my father. He was determined and always maintained hope, and said everything would be all right. Even in the sewers he made sure that we lived like civilized people, like human beings and not like animals. He read the newspapers that were smuggled to him, wrote plays and satires, and organized a theater for us in which we played ourselves."
At the end of July 1944, when the Red Army entered the city, the survivors emerged from the sewers. Of the more than 100,000 Jews who had lived in Lvov before the Holocaust, only a few hundred were left.
A large crowd of curious people had gathered around the sewer opening, and couldn't believe their eyes. "We emerged like cavemen. We had nothing. Our clothes were rags and our appearance frightened the people," Chiger's father would later write.
In 1957 the family immigrated to Israel, where Krystyna studied dentistry. A decade later she and her husband moved to the United States, where she still lives today; she is a mother of two, and has two grandchildren.
But cruel fate continued to batter the family even years after the Holocaust. In 1978 Krystyna's brother, Pawel, 39, was killed in a car crash while on military reserve duty in Israel. "It is a great tragedy for me to this day. My little brother, who always said that I was his second mother, managed to be saved from the sewer pipes, but was killed so suddenly."
Pawel was survived by two children, Anat and Yaron, each of whom has two children. They all live in Israel.
Do you believe in God?
"My mother always said that it was written above that we would stay alive. She believed that, and even though she wasn't religious, she would light candles on Shabbat eve, even in the sewer. I still go to synagogue on the holidays, but it is very difficult and frustrating. I have mixed feelings about it. I think a lot about what caused us to stay alive."
What did you take away with you as a lesson for life?
"The first thing is that you must not discriminate between people. Everyone is a human being and you cannot treat someone differently or brutally, or kill him merely because of his religion or skin color.
"The second thing I learned is that there are tragedies and difficult situations in life, but you have to overcome - to believe that things will get better, and to hope. I remember that when I came to Israel, everyone would give us a pat on the back and say - 'Patience, patience, patience.' So, yes, you need patience and also hope."
Chiger likes the new film inspired by her family's story. "I am the only eyewitness left, and I think it is very accurate and presents the occurrences in a very realistic manner. Both the good sides and the bad sides," she says. "The director Agnieszka Holland and I subsequently became best friends."
One person who sees things in a different light altogether is Henri Berestycki. His father, Jakub, was with Krystyna's family in the sewers of Lvov. In fact, Jakub was the one who persuaded her father to seek refuge underground. Henri had not been born yet.
"This movie is a complete fabrication. It presumes to be 'a true story,' but it contains a great many details that are inaccurate and incorrect," Berestycki says in an interview from Paris, where his father immigrated after the war. "It is a Hollywood horror movie, which instead of bringing the viewers closer to the story, presents them with close-ups of rats in a sewer to give them a scare," he added.
"In Darkness" may presume to be faithful to reality, but as is customary with historical films that are not documentaries per se - some details in the original story (the film was based on the book "In the Sewers of Lvov: A Heroic Story of Survival from the Holocaust," by Robert Marshall) were altered to suit the cinematic narrative. Berestycki understands this, but he still rejects the way in which his father has been depicted in the film.
"I couldn't believe my eyes. Jakub is represented in the film as a 'Hasid' in a caricature straight out of 'Fiddler on the Roof,' or from some of the folklore festivals now being held in Poland," he says. The son proffers an original photograph in which Jakub's appearance is decidedly different - that of "a modern Jew," as the son puts it. In portraying his father as a cliche of the Orthodox Jew, "the film maintains, perhaps without knowing it, a very old anti-Semitic tradition," Berestycki charges, adding that "to construct such fabrications is an insult to the memory of my father and many who were in this group."
Part of his anger stems from the fact that the director did not approach any of the main characters' families during her work on the film.
"I would think that when you produce a film that claims to tell a true story, when the credits list actors [who portray] people who existed - when you use their names, it seems to me that the least you should do is research their story, find out about the people, maybe even ask for authorization," he asserts, adding that the result is "reckless."
Berestycki is not alone among the children of the sewer survivors to carry a heavy burden in his heart. Intrigues were common among the handful of Jews even while they were still in the sewers - and continued to play out for years afterward, above and below the surface. Those intrigues that did not find their way onto the silver screen are still waiting in private family archives.
The award-winning Polish director Agnieszka Holland dealt with the Holocaust in several of her previous films. One of the most outstanding is "Europa Europa" (1990 ), which was also based on an extraordinary, true account: the story of a Jewish boy who masqueraded as a Nazi Party activist to survive the Holocaust.
"I wasn't in touch with them," Holland acknowledged last week in a telephone conversation from Warsaw, referring to the families of the survivors depicted in her latest film. "I was told that no one was alive. It's to my shame actually that I didn't check that." (Holland befriended Chiger after the film was finished, and let her see a rough-cut version.)
"But it wasn't really important for me to search for children of survivors, since the concept [of the film] was never meant to be documentary," she adds.
In preparation for making the movie, Holland says she "read as much as I was able to find about the situation in Lvov: several memoirs, historical books, and a lot of archive materials - 2,000 pages of testimonies that were made by the survivors just after the war, and from [war-crimes] trials."
In what strikes some of the survivors' descendants (some of whom did not wish to be quoted in this article) as paradoxical, Holland insists that "the authenticity was on every level quite crucial" to the film: "I tried to show this reality in the most sensual and realistic way: The dark is really dark, gives you the feeling of being there."
The desire to achieve realism was also part of her rationale for not having the characters speak in English. "Translating into English always feels like it creates a distance for me. I tried to destroy the distance between the viewer and the story and let him be inside of it, the real experience. The languages are the real languages of the story - six in total, including Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and German," the director explains.
"I also dislike Holocaust stories with a sentimental and moralistic approach, a happy end, a little Hollywood," she notes. Instead she made a point of depicting the characters realistically in all their "ambiguous complexity," both the Jews and the non-Jews: "Some are like decent people; some are not very nice, sometimes they behave not very nice."