Sarah (Sabcia) was born in 1926 and grew up in Lublin, Poland, together with her brothers, Julek and Gidal, and her sister Zosia. Their parents, Aron and Estera Fiszman owned a shop selling ready-made clothes.
In June 1939 Sarah, who had just turned thirteen, was told that she had passed the examinations for entry into High School with very good marks, but – due to “ill health” – the school would not accept her. It was at that moment she realised that her Jewish identity would be a big disadvantage in life.
Outbreak of war
Lublin was bombed on the very first day of the war. The bombing continued until 18 September when thousands of Germans marched into the town. All men – young and old, Poles and Jews alike – were rounded up and marched away, but released after a few days. Not long after this happened there was a loud bang at the Fiszman’s door and there stood a woman and two Germans. The woman pointed at Sarah’s father and shouted, “That is the Jew. That’s him.” Her father was ordered to walk with the Germans to his shop, where they confiscated all his merchandise.
Moving into the Ghetto
One morning the Germans ransacked their flat and ordered the family to move out by the afternoon. They were forced to move into the designated ghetto area.
Sarah recalls: ‘Conditions there were appalling. We were so cramped … such crowds everywhere … signs of poverty everywhere: people begging, dying, hungry children crying.’
In early 1942 the deportations began. The Fiszmans went into hiding and then left the ghetto. They went to the countryside and rented a room with farmers in Zakrzowek. Here they were free to move around, but were forbidden to leave the village without a permit.
One morning in summer 1942 the family was woken by gunfire. The Gestapo had come to the village, so they ran into the fields to hide. When everything was quiet again they headed home where they came across twelve bodies lying face down – all had been shot in the neck. The victims had come from another village without a permit and that was their punishment.
Separated from her family
That same day the Fiszmans were ordered to leave the village and report to a train station in another village. Instead they returned to Lublin, where they found the ghetto had been demolished. There was now a new ghetto, adjoining the Majdanek concentration camp called Majdan Tatarski. Sarah’s parents were running out of money and places to hide. They decided that moving into the ghetto was the only solution for them.
As the Poles had to supply a quota of young people for forced labour, Sarah’s parents wanted her to pretend to be a Polish Christian girl and go to Germany. Sarah was horrified at the thought of being separated from her parents but eventually, she obeyed. However, she was upset and did not say a proper “good-bye” to her parents. That was the last time that she saw her mother and father.
Living in Germany on false papers
Sarah travelled – under her new false identity, ‘Lidia Wornik’- with forty-seven girls to Hamburg, where they worked in a sauce factory.
“The work was easy, but boring and tedious and very long. Food was very bad and limited, but we could survive on it. We weren’t locked up, except at night. We had some restrictions though: we weren’t allowed to travel on trams or trains without an escort. We were barred from picture theatres and coffee houses and we had to wear ‘P’ for Pole on our clothes.”
For the first two months after her arrival in Hamburg, Sarah received some letters from her father. To her extreme distress her father never mentioned her mother – even though she begged him to write about what had happened to her. Then suddenly her father’s letters stopped altogether.
“I was driven to despair and did not know what to do. In desperation, I decided to get in touch with some of our Polish friends and, in Easter 1943, I sent them three postcards.”
Soon after this Hamburg was bombed and Sarah found work on a farm 50 km away.
In the hands of the Gestapo
Around this time Sarah was denounced as a Jew. A policeman came and took her to the Gestapo headquarters where she was shown one of her postcards and told that they knew her real name: ‘Saba Fiszman’. After a whole day of interrogation she was released. Sarah knew that eventually the Gestapo would come back for her as all the information she gave them was false, so she fled from Hamburg.
The next day she was captured in Gotha and taken to the Gestapo Headquarters where she was kept for several days. After days of having to stand against a wall with neither food nor water, she decided that she wanted to die. She turned to her interrogator and said, “You are right, I am Jewish. And you can shoot me.” She was taken to a prison and after a month taken to a train station to be transported to Majdanek.
In Leipzig Sarah managed to escape and ended up in a township near Dresden with a new identity – ‘Helena Nowak’. She worked in a factory, as well as the village bakery. In return for her work, Sarah stayed with the baker’s family.
Sarah was liberated by the Russian army in the early spring of 1945.
“My happiest moment in my life was in early spring of 1945, looking at the tired and poorly dressed Russian soldiers with smiling faces who liberated us, bringing an end to the raging hell.”
Sarah became a theatre nurse following the war front.
“When the war ended, my only aim and dream was to return home and try to find somebody from my family alive. I could have left there and then, but I was postponing my departure from day to day, scared that my dream would end and I would be confronted with a cruel reality.”
Eventually, Sarah decided to try and find her family in Lublin. But nobody was there anymore, and it no longer felt like home.
Sarah joined a group of orphaned and homeless young people like herself whose aim was to go to Palestine. In May 1946, Sarah arrived in Haifa.
“For the first time in nearly six years, I had once again a home.”
Sarah joined the Jewish Defence Force, Haganah, and participated in the fight for independence. She was married in Israel in 1948 where her two children were born. In 1953 the family travelled to Australia – not intending to settle but to have a break from war. As it turned out, they stayed forever.
In 1981, Sarah started to work in clay, first as a potter and then turning to her real ambition as a sculptor.
Sarah began working as a volunteer guide at the Melbourne Holocaust Museum in 1989 and later published the story about her experiences during the war, Life goes on regardless …