Irving Milchberg, Warsaw Cigarette Seller, Dies at 86

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

Holocaust survivor Irving Milchberg, whose story was chronicled in Joseph Ziemian's book “The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square,” published in 1962, died on Sunday in Toronto. The New York Times reported that he was 86.

Three Crosses Square was a center of the German occupation of Warsaw. A nearby YMCA was a barracks for SS troops, another building housed the German gendarmerie and a third building housed Hungarian soldiers collaborating with the Germans. A Gestapo office was nearby.

The square itself was bustling and noisy, and much of the racket was contributed by about 14 cigarette sellers, most of whom were orphaned boys and girls hiding their Jewish identities and sleeping either on the streets, in cemeteries or with nervously accommodating Polish families.

Milchberg and the other children hustled there for a year-and-a-half, often fighting among themselves over customers, who included not only Poles but also the hundreds of Germans who could shoot them on the spot if they discovered they were Jewish. Milchberg's sandy hair and blue eyes made it easy for him to pass as a Polish gentile.

Milchberg, who had taken the Polish name Henrik Rozowski but was known by the nickname Bull, was a leader of the group.

“This group of Jewish children, wandering around under the very noses of a thousand policemen, gendarmes, Gestapo men and ordinary spies, constituted an unexplained and inexplicable phenomenon,” Ziemian wrote.

Before joining the cigarette sellers, Milchberg twice escaped from the Nazis. The first time he scaled a fence and fled the Umschlagplatz, where Jews were put aboard trains to the Treblinka death camp. The second time, he managed to break the bars of the train taking him to Treblinka and scramble out.
His father, mother and three sisters were all murdered by the Nazis.

“To tell you the truth, I never thought much,” Milchberg said in a 2013 interview, trying to explain his daring resourcefulness. “If I had to do something, I did it. I didn’t have time to analyze it.”

During the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Milchberg smuggled guns into the ghetto in hollowed loaves, often through the sewers. After the uprising, he was rounded up and put aboard a train to the Poniatowa camp. But when the group was switched to another train, he mingled with a crowd of Polish boys selling water and escaped.

In 1945, Mr. Milchberg made his way to Czechoslovakia, then Austria, then to a camp for displaced people in occupied Germany, where he learned watchmaking, his lifelong occupation. In 1947 Canada allowed 1,000 children to immigrate, and he became one of three cigarette sellers who settled there, while most went to Israel.

Irving Milchberg.Credit: Ontario Jewish Archive

Click the alert icon to follow topics: