Zofia Preisman was born in Lvov, Poland, October 27, 1910, the only child
of a middle class family. Her father was a physician, a captain in the
Austro-Hungarian Army in charge of field hospitals on the Russian front.
During World War I the family took refuge in Vienna. Zofia was educated
there until she was fourteen, and the family returned to Poland. Zofia
did her undergraduate work at the University of Lvov and the rest other
studies and graduate work in Vienna and Italy. The family settled in Tarnobrzeg,
a small but important industrial city. This is where they were when the
Germans started bombing on September 1, 1939.
"My family helped the refugees fleeing from occupied Poland with
food, water, shelter and medical aid. The German army was followed by
the SS. My cousin was the first hostage victim of the Nazis. On October
2, an anti-Semitic high school professor came to our house and ordered
us to appear at the marketplace at ten in the morning to 'account for
our crimes.' Instead we went to the Vistula River, and because we spoke
idiomatic German, the soldiers on guard allowed us to cross into the district
of Radom which was not yet Judenrein [free of Jews]. We learned later
that in the marketplace at Tarnobrzeg the Jews had been stripped of their
belongings. The members of the municipal council voted unanimously to
expel the Jews, who had a history of living in Poland for seven hundred
"After we crossed the Vistula, which was red with blood, we rented
a horse and wagon and traveled to the nearest town of Koprzywnica. It
was three years before the joint German/Polish effort against the Jews
reached this town. Since my father was well-known here we were given a
small room, scantily furnished, with no toilet or bath. My father soon
had more patients than he could handle, so we had enough food. Three thousand
Jews lived here and a ghetto was established with all the Jews confined
to it. They were poor and uneducated, small tradesmen and merchants. They
were the kindest people I ever knew.
"My father had been a founder of the first Zionist organization and
a coworker of Herzl and Zangwilll 1. He never turned away anyone in need
of medical care. On March 25, 1940 my father was struck by a drunken soldier.
We were not able to get medical attention for him and he died three days
later on his sixty-first birthday. After 1941, when the Germans occupied
parts of Poland formerly occupied by the Russians, they systematically
killed every Jew they could find. My father's brother-in-law was executed
in the marketplace, my mother's sisters and brothers were shipped to extermination
camps. Special Lithuanian troops wearing caps inscribed 'Judenvernichters'
[Jew killers] went from house to house collecting and killing Jews.
"One night, in 1942, I went out looking for a horse and buggy I could
rent to take my mother away. I was cut off and couldn't get back to my
mother that night. I was working for the town reeve and had stolen papers
for myself and my mother. I took the birth certificate of a dead child
for myself and destroyed the death certificate. That night my mother,
who had refused to move when the Nazis entered the apartment, was shot
to death in her bed. She was fifty-seven years old. A doctor friend told
me about how my mother had died.
"I was with a group being herded to cattle cars for Auschwitz. I
managed to detach myself from the group and ran into the woods. I wandered
for days until I reached a railroad station and boarded a train for Lvov.
"I had no idea where to go or what to do. I was lucky. I didn't look
Jewish, so I managed to avoid being picked up. While I was wandering around
I heard shots in the ghettos and saw the fires of it being burnt out.
A family friend took me in for a couple of nights, but I didn't trust
anyone and feared being betrayed and so I ran again. I slept one night
in the station washroom, a very dangerous thing to do. Finally, I answered
an ad in the newspaper for a job as secretary for a construction company.
My knowledge of German got me the job. All bids and bills had to be submitted
in German. My boss did not know I was Jewish, of course. I worked for
him and lived with his family from November of 1942 until July 1944, until
the Russian invasion, when we all went to western Poland together. These
people were childless and regarded me as a daughter.
"It was horrible. For four years I lived with the constant fear of
being discovered as a Jew. I was surrounded by neighbors and acquaintances
talking anti-Semitically in front of me because they thought I was like
them. I witnessed convoys of Jews being taken off to execution camps.
Lvov was near a death camp and you could smell the stench of the crematorium.
They said that the soap available in the marketplace was made of Jewish
fat. All this time I kept up the pretense. My photo album had pictures
of priests and nuns. I went to church every Sunday with my boss and his
wife. I learned the ways of the Gentiles, like not salting meat 2 before
cooking and so forth. I was always afraid I would be exposed by my own
slip or by an enemy.
"After the war, I stayed in the Russian zone for sixteen months.
I told no one I was Jewish. I found work in a library run by a Jewish
librarian who had hidden through the war in the stacks and was brought
food by Polish friends. The Russians took him away on the theory that
whoever survived the German occupation had to be a spy or collaborator,
or very rich. After a while, the librarian returned but was again taken
away and never returned. When this happened, I went to the authorities
for evacuation papers to the west. I bribed a man with a pint of vodka
for the papers.
'In May 1946 the family I lived with and I started out. They took me to
the train still not knowing I was Jewish. It took about two weeks for
me to get from Lvov to Vienna. I found two cousins in Breslau who helped
me get to the Czech border. I had to convince the Haganah couriers that
I was Jewish by quoting obscure Hebrew material. Partisan snipers were
active on the border, so we had to avoid them by taking a circuitous route
which took a couple of days. When we marched through Czechoslovakia, the
Haganah instructed us not to speak German or Yiddish. Finally we got to
Vienna and the Rothschild hospital. Vienna was in shambles. I went into
one of the six to eight DP camps in upper Austria. The barracks I was
in had no running water or heat, no sleeping quarters and no food. Jewish
boys were being arrested for going into the woods and collecting wood
to burn. I met Simon Wiesenthal in this camp.
"In January 1948 I emigrated to Canada, brought over by a Jewish
garment manufacturer on the strength of my having made a neat hem on a
skirt. I had two dollars in cash and a bag of dried bread which I kept
for months, afraid of starvation. I was terrible at sewing and lost five
jobs in garment factories. I was so discouraged I went to the Jewish Congress
and asked to be sent back to Europe. I was rescued by Waiter Friedman,
president of the garment manufacturers credit union, who took me to work
in his office. I worked with him for two years and then for the YMHA,
which sponsored my library training at McGill University. This was the
start of my library career. In 1967 I came to the University of Victoria.
If I hadn't been of a strong constitution, I don't know if I would have
survived. As it is I lost all my teeth because of the poor diet in the
DP camps. After hiding my Jewish identity for all those years I now find
a lot of satisfaction in lighting Shabbat candles every Friday night and
observing Passover and Yom Kippur strictly."
[Note from editor of the book from which this account was
excerpted: There is no audio-tape of the Preisman interview at her request.]
1 (Theodor) Herzl: Founder of the modern Zionist movement to resettle
the ancient Jewish homeland of Judea.
(Israel) Zangwill: Writer and novelist of Jewish literature and associate
2 salting meat: A step in the process of producing kosher meat in accordance
with Jewish Dietary Laws.