Like many Jewish women in World War II, Rose fought for her life. Hers is a story of courage in the face of the threat of Auschwitz and death. Some of this is difficult to read but I wanted to share Rose’s story with you. She was truly a courageous adventurous woman.
Rose tells her own story in the book she wrote in 1983 called In the Mouth of the Wolf. Here are the highlights:
Fleeing the Ghetto – and the Extermination Camp
Rose Zar was born in 1922 and she was 19 and living in Piotrkow, a small town just outside Warsaw when the people there heard that the Nazis were rounding up Jews to be taken to extermination camps.
Rose’s father Herman Guterman, a smart man, realized that two of his children – Rose and her brother Benek – had a chance to get away and live hidden in plain sight. He said to them:
“If you’re ever on the run and have to hide, the best place is right in the mouth of the wolf.”
Rose and Benek didn’t look especially Jewish and they spoke Polish with no Jewish accent. They had also been taught enough about Catholicism that they could talk about it if necessary. Herman got them real Polish passports, changed their names to more Polish ones (she became Wanda Gajda) and added their photos. He told them not to stay together because one person could hide while two was too suspicious. So Rose was on her own – alone.
Benek found a job in another city and Rose found one in Warsaw in a leather shop making leather uppers for shoes. She said it was difficult because she had to listen to the anti-Semitic remarks by the shopkeeper and she had to watch them tear up copies of the Torah (the Jewish bible) for shoe linings. “It was hard wearing that mask,” she said in her book. “Very hard.”
This was only the first of many times she found it heartbreaking to be Jewish and not be able to react to anti-Jewish people. Finally, the repeated sexual advances by the shopkeeper forced her to leave.
About this time she found out that her father was forced to go to the ghetto in Poland but his wife and six-year-old daughter were sent to the prison camp. I found this part difficult to read, but it might have been terrible for her to learn about.
Hiding in Plain Sight
For a while, Rose went from job to job and shelter to shelter, always trying to stay inconspicuous. She said, “The key to survival under false papers lies in making yourself as inconspicuous as possible.” She learned to keep her papers and some money sewn in a belt, so she could walk away from a situation if she felt it was dangerous.
Sometimes she had to leave a house quickly, with no place to stay. One Christmas Eve she was staying with an old man and woman. The woman decided Rose/Wanda had to go. Rose couldn’t be out after curfew so she found a little shelter behind a garbage can in the cold and snow. As she tried to sleep she heard Christmas bells and thought,
Peace on earth, goodwill toward men. But not for Jews.
She said she could never hear church bells the rest of her life without thinking of that moment.
One day she met a man she knew from her home town who was also a hidden Jew. She liked him and was eager for a Jewish friend, someone who remembered the town. But she was also concerned that he was too open. He kept coming to her work and his presence outside made her conspicuous. He also has some problems with Polish, saying some things with a Jewish accent. Something as small as that could mean being arrested and taken to a prison camp.
Rose wasn’t interested in him romantically. She had a boyfriend back in the ghetto and she knew she couldn’t afford the luxury of a love affair.
The Germans occasionally took her and interrogated her, trying to trick her into revealing herself One German sang Ave Maria to see if she could recognize it. (Luckily, she did.) She had several close calls and learned to trust her instincts. She had been receiving letters from her family and she didn’t want to throw them away. But one day she decided to clean them out. That night, walking home from work, she had a premonition that she shouldn’t go home. After taking a long way home, she learned that a Nazi had been looking for her and had left just before she arrived home.
Rose in the Mouth of the Wolf
Finally Rose got what seemed like a dream job, as a housekeeper and companion to the wife of a Nazi colonel, the Kommandant in Krakow. She and the Kommandant’s wife became friends, and she took care of their baby when it was born.
She lived every day in fear of being found out, but she knew that she was probably safer in the home of a Nazi than just about anywhere else. The Colonel liked her and wanted her to marry a nice Nazi.
He was a cruel man, to his wife and to Rose/Wanda. Once, when his wife was away, he made her drink seven glasses of brandy; to the end of her life, she couldn’t stand the smell of it.
About this time, she read Gone With the Wind. It had a profound effect on her. She said that before she read it, she had thought that after the war everything would go back to the way it was and they would all live happily ever after. Now she realized she was fooling herself. The Pietrkow of her childhood was gone.
Never again would I walk those familiar streets…that world was gone forever….No matter what the future may bring, it will never bring back the past.
In 1944, the Germans were in retreat from Poland as the Russians advanced. The Colonel sent his wife and child away. When he was ready to leave for Germany, she hid from him, coming out only when she was sure the Germans had left.
Life After the War
If you talk to people who lived during this time in Europe, their lives seem to be divided strictly in terms of “before” and “after” the War. The people of Poland welcomed the Russians (formerly their enemies) as they took over Poland.
Rose went back to Piotrkow and married her childhood sweetheart. They helped smuggle Jewish children out of Soviet-occupied Poland and lived in Germany for a while. Finally, they went to the U.S. and spent the rest of their lives in South Bend, Indiana. You can read more about Rose’s work after the war in the “Overlooked” article about her in 2018 in the New York Times.
The Courage of Rose Zar
Courage comes in many forms. Rose Zar had a strong will to live and she spent over three years in constant danger, but she focused on survival. How exhausting it must have been for to have been always looking over her shoulder, wondering when she might be grabbed. Every word, every gesture, could bring her to the attention of the Nazis and a trip to Auschwitz, which was only an hour away from Krakow.
Rose’s story is worth reading. It would make a great book club book.
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