Why you should care
Because our past defines us.
Barbara Helena Bawarska’s true story, as told to OZY writer Libby Coleman.
When I was two days old I was placed on the steps of a house in Warsaw to keep me alive. I’m now 72, and two weeks ago, I went back to see where I had lived during World War II. The house was abandoned. It had been practically destroyed in a fire in 1989, but still, being there brought back many emotions. I recognized the orphanage where I and the other 100 to 200 children had stayed.
I recognized the door. I recognized the steps my mother had climbed from the stories she had told me. She came to get me back, more than two years later. I thought about how difficult it must have been for my mother to find me there, to get there, to fight for me to get me back. The hero of this story is my mother. My mother not only saved me; she saved my father, and her brother, and she saved total strangers.
You see, I was born in 1942 in Minsk Mazowiecki, about 50 kilometers from Warsaw, where many other Jews were living. Most of us had already been sent to Treblinka or executed in the ghetto. So after I was born, my parents decided to give me up. They knew that we could not survive if they kept me with them. With help, my mother got an Aryan certificate and brought me to Warsaw City, where she left me on the floor of an unknown house. Strangers found me and called the police. The police didn’t realize I was Jewish. They just brought me to a convent, where I was baptized and given my first name — Barbara Helena Bawarska.
Meanwhile, my mother hid my father, my uncle and three other Jewish people in an attic in Poland for more than two years, until they were liberated by the Russian Soviet army.
The nuns were furious. To them, I was a Christian. They refused to return me.
Finally free, my parents wanted desperately to find me. They searched for information on my whereabouts, at one point getting answers from two nuns on the street in Warsaw. Apparently, during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, I had been evacuated to Kowaniec. I had been pulled from one place to another, without a home. Dozens of children traveling with the convent were all very ill and without medicine. In the end, 80 percent of the convent’s children died because of the evacuation. So during the winter of 1945, my mother — not knowing whether I was alive or dead — traveled to the south of Poland to find me.
When she found the nuns, she found out that I was, in fact, alive. One nun had taken a particular interest in me and cared for me very well. My mother told the nun her story, all of the painful details. She told them she was Jewish — and so was I. She pressed the nun to give her child back. The nuns were furious. To them, I was a Christian. They refused to return me. The rumor spread. An elderly priest came and asked what had happened, and my mother explained again. She had left me on a floor, she told him. This time, the priest understood. He understood that during the war, Jewish parents had done everything they could to keep their children alive. Even abandoning them. He decided I belonged to my mother.
The last time my mother had seen me, I was only a few days old. She had no idea what I looked like.
Of course, the last time my mother had seen me, I was only a few days old. Now, I was two and a half. She had no idea what I looked like. They brought her to a room with 50, maybe 100 small beds. Lying in each was an ill child. My mother ran from one bed to another, searching for a familiar face. For a baby with a small bump on her head, which I’d had since birth. Finally, a young lady pointed to me. And we were reunited.
I never saw the nuns again. It wasn’t until I was 10 years old that I was told I had ever been in Kowaniec. That I had ever even been given away. The Jewish parents of Warsaw didn’t like to talk about that time. It took years for my mother to tell me.
As I continued to grow from a baptized baby into a teenager, and then to a woman working for the Austrian broadcaster, and to the retiree I am today, I have always volunteered in the Jewish community. Everything I did was connected to helping Jewish people. I worked in a Jewish house for the elderly. I’ve worked in a Jewish cemetery, with Jewish children, for a Jewish institute. For 43 years, I’ve lived in Vienna. The last seven years, I’ve worked for the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance — which researches Austrian resistance against the Nazis and the fate of Austrian Jews during World War II.
They say never forget. We must never have another genocide. For me, the most important thing is that we continue to talk about what happened in Warsaw, what happened in World War II. It is important that we continue to talk about the Holocaust — and that we continue to talk about what happened to children like me.
Photo courtesy of Barbara Helena Bawarska.
This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct errors introduced in the editing process.