YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – When Eva Jacobs was a child living in Pionki, Poland, she endured a life not many people would survive to talk about.
In a new Holocaust testimony series by the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation, Jacobs recalled what life was like before, during and after World War II.
Before the war started
“In about ’38, we weren’t allowed to walk on the sidewalk next to the post office. We had to walk on the street…That’s how it is. I guess it was a law,” Jacobs said as she recalled what it was like being Jewish living in Poland.
She said when she moved to the United States and went to school at Rayen High School in Youngstown, the history being taught was not what she remembered.
“I used to have fights with my history teacher when I was in high school. She used to say that Poland was the most democratic country in the world, but I haven’t seen it this way… She knew from the books,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs said she was one of six children. When you count her parents, she was a part of a family of eight.
She remembered her father owning a grocery store and a butcher shop. He was also a carpenter. Her mother took care of the children and the home.
She said her family wasn’t treated badly where she lived, other than some minor bullying from kids.
“Letting out the air in the bicycle, or throwing stones after us. You know it was a small town, we were pretty well-liked by the Christians but there were other little kids, you know, walking to the Hebrew school,” she said.
Jacobs said her father wanted to leave Poland and move to Israel or Russia, but her mother wanted to stay close to her parents.
Jacobs said that even at 10 years old she was very politically minded. She would listen as people around her spoke about things going on.
“When the Jewish men were standing around talking about politics, I always had my ears open,” she said.
Then, she recalled the day everything changed.
The start of the war
“The first of Sept., the war broke out and we never went back to school,” Jacobs said. “I got up about 7 in the morning and we had signs on the walls already; The German, the blood war… About 11 o’clock in the morning, the same day, they started bombing.”
Jacobs said the first bomb fell right into a church. For the first two days, her family stayed inside their home. Eventually, they would start digging for shelter.
“Everybody was digging shelters,” she said.
She talked about the moments the bombs fell and what she remembered.
“When the first bomb fell, the windows started shattering in the place, and the second bomb did not explode, it fell in an ice cream place,” she said.
Jacobs spoke of her father a lot. She talked about how hard he worked and how he would try and protect his family.
“My father was in civil defense, they wouldn’t let him leave. He had to stay. But he made sure that we got out of it, he took us to a village… About 7 or 8 kilometers away,” she said
Jacobs, along with her mother and siblings, would stay in the village on a farm for close to a week. She remembered what it was like walking to the village.
“The Germans came around, the planes came around and they was shooting… Germans were shooting with the machine guns. They didn’t know that we were Jews. They were just shooting people,” she said.
Once they were in the village, they sought shelter with other families. They would put hay in the houses and every family had a corner they filled with hay and slept in.
After that week in the village, her family went to her grandparents’ village for a few days in Jedlnia. Then from there, they went back home.
Around 1940, life would resume somewhat, but it never went back to normal. The children still couldn’t go to school. From 1939 to 1942, Jacobs said Jewish people would get moved around a lot.
“If they don’t want Jews in the front, they move you in the back, in the same building,” she said.
The Germans had taken over their city. She remembered seeing and hearing them throughout the days.
“During the night, the Germans used to get drunk and you could hear them walking and throwing something in the windows and they scared life out of you,” she said.
Eventually, in 1941, the family moved again. Jacobs said she would try and fill her days with music.
“We used to sit around and sing, we did a lot of singing,” she said.
Since she couldn’t go to school, she wanted to learn how to sew. But despite the war, her father was determined for her to get an education.
“My father wouldn’t let me sew. I wanted to go into a dressmaker and learn sewing. He would come around and get me out of there. He says, ‘You’re not gonna be a dressmaker. The war will be over, you’ll go back to school,’” she said.
But that didn’t happen. In Jan. 1942, Jacobs said “the ghetto” was established.
Nazi ghettos were crowded, enclosed areas that Jewish people were forced to move into. Jacobs said she remembers when the Germans forced the Polish to move out of their homes to make space for a Nazi ghetto.
“They came around, they took out the Polish people from the street,” she said. “It was private small homes and they just took the Jews in and threw the Polish people out from this place.”
She said the Polish were given 24 hours to get out. Whatever they couldn’t take they just left behind. From there, Jewish people were brought in from the outskirts of town.
She said there was a wire fence around the ghetto, to keep the Jewish people separate and from leaving.
However, Jacobs would sneak out three to four times a day to find food for her family and smuggle it back into the ghetto. She said only she could go.
“I had more luck than brains,” she said.
She said she never got caught. If she had, she wouldn’t be here.
“A couple people were caught. They’re not around here now..They killed them right in place,” she said.
She shared one memory of what happened to a mother and son in the ghetto.
“A mother and a son were out just picking some branches, you know, to make a fire, to cook some food…They were killed right then and there. And I was out. My mother and father was standing at the gate…I just came up, kicked in the fence, walked in with 24 pounds of flour and walked up to my parents and said, ‘I’m here.’ My father said, ‘You’re not leaving this place anymore, if we starve from hunger, you’re not going any place.’”
But a couple of hours later, she was out again.
On Aug. 18, 1942, Jacobs was taken away from her family and taken to a factory in Pionki. This was the last time she would see her mother.
The next day, others were taken away too.
“They came in with tractors…took whoever they wanted. Who they wanted to stay behind and the rest of them, they were preparing to take to Zwolen,” she said.
Those who were taken to Zwolen were then taken to Treblinka, an extermination camp where roughly 800,000 people were killed in the Holocaust.
Jacobs continued to work in the factory for 22 months in Pionki. At one point, her father would be brought into Pionki too. But he would be taken back out and he would not be able to stay with Jacobs.
In a 1980 interview with Mary Anne Seman of Youngstown State University, Jacobs said her family was sent to Treblinka.
“That was the last time we heard from them,” she said in the interview.
Jacobs would go from the factory to a concentration camp called Birkenau, a branch of Auschwitz.
“We were recommended as ammunition workers. Again the same thing, this was the only transport that came into Auschwitz with some little children that the people smuggled into Pionki camp. This was the only camp that came to Auschwitz-Birkenau. But nobody was taken, just one old man and a grandchild, to the crematorium. The rest of us, everyone went into camp which was a very unusual thing at that time. Normally they made selections. They put you to right and to the left. It was mostly right that went into a camp. It was mostly left that went into the crematoriums there. As far as I know, our camp was the only camp that everybody got in. All other people suffered.”
Jacobs is one of a couple of dozen people who shared her story through the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation Holocaust survivor interviews.
The federation partnered with the Mahoning Valley Historical Society to digitize numerous analog audio, and video recordings.
You can listen to more of the testimonies by visiting the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation’s website. You can read the rest of Jacobs’ story, and how she got out of the Auschwitz camp by clicking here.