Henry Ekert was born in Przemysl, Poland in 1936. He was only three years old when the war broke out.
Henry remembers the first five years of his life with “loving aunts, uncles, grandparents and a treasured nanny. There were smiles, games, food, toys and pets.”
Henry’s nanny, Delka, had a particularly great impact on his life, and he remembers his connection with her being very strong.
“I have recollections, which have been reinforced by photographs, of my nursery at home, with pictures of Winnie the Pooh on the wall.”
Henry also remembers his mother’s sister and her husband, and he has fond memories of playing with them while on holiday together.
Henry lived in the part of Poland that was occupied by the Russian army before the German invasion. Henry remembers no negative things happening when the Russians occupied his hometown.
When the Germans occupied Przemysl in 1941, Henry recalls being very frightened.
“My memories are initially of great fear as my father was in the Polish army and he was called away so I was left at home with only my mother, and the governess.”
“There was gunfire, and darkness. There was all these kinds of frightening things.”
Henry remembers his world being “immediately punctuated with having to leave home and go to the ghetto. A sense of dislocation and terror. I remember fear. And I remember the shock of finding ourselves in one room in the ghetto, and the feeling that everything had changed.”
“Until then I had not known hardship.”
Henry remembers playing in the streets of the ghetto. One day when he was playing in the streets with some other children, an SS officer approached them. Henry ran away but the officer managed to capture one of the other children and swung him against a wall. “As I remember it, there was no provocation whatsoever. That memory has stuck with me for my whole life.”
The first round up for deportation from the ghetto occurred on Henry’s fifth birthday. Henry’s parents made him stand at the window and make sure he would “never forget” the chaos that was occurring outside of their apartment. That day, Henry’s grandmother, Clara, died in the apartment building, after Henry’s father gave her a fatal dose of morphine. He did this in order to save her from her inevitable deportation, that he had heard was occurring while working at the hospital. This was the first encounter with death that Henry faced.
When Henry and his parents were forced into the ghetto, he would never see his nanny again.
Henry remembers being constantly hungry from the time the Germans occupied his hometown and put his family in the ghetto.
“From the time the Nazis came until after the war, hunger was just a constant fact of life.”
Eventually, Henry’s father arranged for Henry’s mother to be smuggled out of the ghetto and sent to a family in Krakow.
Two days later, Henry was smuggled out and sent to join his mother. His father remained in the ghetto. As Henry’s father was an “essential worker” his disappearance would have been noticeable and would likely have compromised their escape.
As soon as Henry’s mother arrived in Krakow, she realised the family she was staying with were antisemites and managed to contact her husband telling him to fetch Henry and take him back to the ghetto as soon as possible and she would follow.
The smuggler who helped Henry join his mother, returned him to his father in the Przemysl Ghetto.
The flat that Henry’s father was staying in was supposed to be empty during the day. Henry would hide in the cupboard during the day while his father was “at work” and would only come out at night when his father returned.
Meanwhile, on the eve of Christmas in 1942, Henry’s mother, desperate on the empty streets of Krakow, approached a man and asked him for help. “She told him she was Jewish and had been robbed of all she had and would pay him if he could take her back to Przemysl where she could die with her husband and child.”
Instead, the man took her to his mother’s home for a Christmas meal and arranged to transport Henry and his father from Przemysl.
The man’s name was Henek Wronarowski and Henry attributes the survival of his family to his kindness.
Henry was placed in Henek’s mother’s home, and his father (under the false name of “Janusz Stolinski”), was employed in an abattoir. Henry’s mother was placed as a governess with an aristocratic Polish family.
“My stay with Henek’s mother was short lived because her block of apartments was raided by Nazis looking for hidden Jews and she made me run away onto the street.”
Henry didn’t know what to do, he just started walking. “By pure luck, my father was crossing the street onto which I ran. I was taken by him to Henek’s older sister, Aunty Bola, who agreed to take me as her foster child. She had no children of her own and welcomed me with kindness and, I dare say, love.”
Henry remained at Aunt Bola’s until the autumn of 1944.
“She was very good to me. Very kind. In her house, I thrived, in the sense of learning to speak Polish with a Krakow accent. And I spoke it very well. I can remember once my father and mother visiting there, and there was a stranger that came in, and I had to hide my parents in the pantry, and I had to talk to him.”
In autumn 1944 Henry was sent to his biological mother who was, by then, living with Henek in Paczoltowice. Because she was supposed to be childless, Henry had to remain hidden in a cupboard during the day.
“I loved being with her because a son’s love for his mother is intense and everlasting. I spent about four weeks with her. She was popular in the village because as a good musician she was their only source of entertainment playing the accordion at feasts and weddings. She also received food and money from the Polish aristocratic family where she had been governess and clothes that Henek stole from Germans while carrying their luggage.”
In January 1945 the Red Army liberated Krakow with minimal fighting, and Henry, like many other children in the area, rushed out to see them. “A uniformed female tank driver, a tankista, got out of the tank, came up to a terrified me, ruffled my hair and gave me a bar of chocolate. Oh what a joy!”
The returned to their hometown, but things were “terrible after the war.”
“My worst experience after the war was going to a Polish school. The antisemitism I encountered there was terrible.”
Luckily the Jewish underground movement enabled Henry and his parents to escape to a Displaced Person’s (DP) camp in the American Zone. The family then moved to Munich where Henry’s father ran the X-ray department in a hospital in Bodenhausen, which was reserved for victims of Nazi atrocities. After four years as displaced persons, Henry and his parents came to Australia in 1949.
Henry began speaking to students at the Melbourne Holocaust Museum (previously, Jewish Holocaust Centre) in 2021.