Emerging From the Rubble of Warsaw: A Survivor Remembers His Holocaust Childhood

The Kenigsweins made the excruciating decision to part with their kids to increase their chances of surviving WWII; one of their sons recalls the random twists of fate that saved him.

Vanessa Gera
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
This photograph, taken in 1947 in Dzierzoniow, Poland, shows Moshe Tirosh as a boy with his mother and siblings.Credit: AP
Vanessa Gera

AP - The young boy emerged from the rubble of Warsaw, clinging to a woman he knew only as Mrs. Wala. She turned and walked off, and 7-year-old Mieczyslaw Kenigswein was alone, lost in the Holocaust.

He is now 78, an Israeli with a Hebrew name, Moshe Tirosh. During a visit to Warsaw, he recalled surviving the war not knowing if his parents were dead or alive — and how random twists of fate saved his life.

Tirosh's earliest memories are of hunger and misery in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Called Miecio as a boy, he was nearly 5 when his mother, Regina, gave birth to her third child under floorboards, biting her knuckles to keep from screaming so the Germans would not discover them.

The parents made the excruciating decision to part with the infant to increase his chances of survival.

Moshe Tirosh, 78, in Warsaw, Poland, April 10, 2015.Credit: AP

With the help of a young Pole, Zygmunt Pietak, his mother smuggled the newborn out of the ghetto and left him on a street corner with a card bearing the name "Stanislaw Pomorski" — meant to hide his Jewish origins.

A Polish policeman took the baby to a home for abandoned children.

The next year, Tirosh's father, Samuel, was helping other Jews plan the ghetto uprising when he decided to flee with his family.

Now 6, Miecio and his 4-year-old sister, Stefania, were packed in padded sacks and thrown over the ghetto walls. Then the parents climbed over.

They found shelter with a Polish family, the Raczeks. The family hid behind apartment walls or in closets during German inspections. The punishment for helping Jews was severe: death to any rescuer and their family.

Mrs. Raczek decided after a few months she could no longer bear the risk.

Pietak stepped in again, this time to smuggle the Kenigsweins to the Warsaw zoo, where the director and his wife, Jan and Antonina Zabinski, had been sheltering Jews.

On a rainy night, the family climbed into a horse-driven carriage for the trip, past German guards on both sides of a bridge.

Pietak sat next to the driver. When they approached the guards, he pulled out a bottle of moonshine and splashed the horses and himself with it.

"Halt!" the Germans ordered. When they smelled the alcohol, they shouted: "Polish pigs, go away!"

They made it to the zoo. By this time, most of the animals had been killed or hauled off to Germany, and Zabinski had turned it into a pig farm.

The Zabinskis could not keep them indefinitely. With the help of Pietak, the family found shelter in the tiny apartment of a captain in Poland's underground army. But the necessity of buying so much food for such a small household was certain to arouse suspicion.

Jan Zabinski with his wife Antonina. Photo by AP

So it was decided that splitting up the family would increase their chances.

A shopkeeper agreed to adopt Stefania but it was more difficult to shield Jewish boys, because they were circumcised.

Pietak found a place for Miecio with a woman he remembers as Mrs. Wala. She had a daughter about his age and agreed to take him in for money.

During the 1944 bombardment, the German response to the Warsaw uprising, sirens signaled for people to take shelter and Miecio ran into a cellar with Mrs. Wala.

The bombing caused the four-story building above them to collapse. The survivors emerged to an apocalyptic scene.

"In one hand, Mrs. Wala held a suitcase and, in the other, her little daughter's hand," he said. "I held onto her skirt and we ran."

"At one point, we stopped and I lost hold of her. ... She turned to me and made an expression that said she was very sorry that she was leaving me, and then she walked away with her daughter."

Miecio pressed his hands together and kept repeating "Jesus, where is my aunt?" Mrs. Wala had taught him to do it — to appear Catholic.

Polish underground fighters pulled him into shelter. They gave him a card saying he was an orphan and sent him on. With the help of another stranger, he made his way to an orphanage.

He was evacuated with the other orphans to southern Poland, and lived out the war in a monastery.

"There I endured hell," he said, describing hunger, flea infestations and beatings by older boys who discovered he was Jewish after pulling his pants down. Disease was rife. Every day, nuns carted away the corpses of children.

On New Year's Eve, just weeks before the arrival of the Soviet army ended the Nazi occupation, a farmer and his wife came to the orphanage to adopt a boy. Lifting Miecio's chin, the wife turned to the priest and said, "Father, we want this one."

"No, you don't," Father Andrzej said. "He is weak, and always sick."

But the couple insisted. That night, the farmer's wife bathed him. Despite his efforts to hide his private parts, she discovered his circumcision. The next morning, the farmer returned Miecio to the orphanage.

Today, he is grateful the couple didn't keep him. Had he stayed on the farm, he might never have been found by his mother.

Regina and Samuel Kenigswein. Photo by AP

With 6 million Jews dead and survivors bereft of loved ones, the Kenigsweins were lucky: Both parents and their three children survived, and Regina Kenigswein eventually tracked down her children.

The woman who adopted Stefania did not want to give her up but was persuaded when offered money.

The youngest, Stanislaw, had been evacuated with other foundlings to the city of Czestochowa, where his mother found him.

She found Miecio 10 months later in a church-run orphanage in Krakow, where he was taken after the war. At first, he didn't recognize her. The orphanage director, not knowing he was Jewish, didn't want to give him up.

"How can he be yours if you are Jewish and he is a Pole?" the director asked.

The boy was told to pull down his pants, his circumcision again the proof of his Jewish heritage.

After the war, Samuel Kenigswein made a fortune manufacturing shoe polish. Two more children were born. Then their luck ran out: Samuel Kenigswein's heart gave out in 1948, soon after his fifth child was born.

In 1957, the rest of the family immigrated to Israel. Tirosh became an army officer and married.

Today, he speaks with joy of his three children, six grandchildren and an extended family of 56.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: