“The non-Jews watched like a show and laughed, and we cried.”
- Eva Galler
Pre-war map of Oleszyce, Poland
Eva Galler (Vogel) was born on January 1, 1923, in the town of Oleszyce (Oh-la-shit-za) in southeastern Poland. Until the end of World War I, her region of Galicia, renown in the history of the Jewish people, was a province in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and ruled by the Habsburgs in Vienna. Jews were treated with (relative) equality under the law. When Galicia was absorbed by the new Polish state after World War I, the Jews weren’t happy at all. They retained a sentimental attachment to Kaiser Franz Josef, a grandfather type figure who had opposed the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna and was a friend of the Jews. In the years after 1918 the Habsburg era was the subject of much nostalgia, and Eva’s father, who had served in the Austrian army, wasn’t immune to it.
Oleszyce was a multi-ethnic town of 811 Poles, 862 Ukrainians, and 1,896 Jews. For Jews it was a classic shtetl, its pattern of life woven by centuries of studying the holy books while living as a minority people in a hostile world. They had their own communal government. The majority was ultra-Orthodox (Hasidic) and lived in a world apart. There was a fortress-like brick synagogue and two prayer houses. The town was famous in the Jewish world for the manufacture of religious “articles” such as the Torah and prayer shawls. Jews owned most of the stores on the market square. They were prohibited from owning land. Poles and Ukrainians owned and farmed the land. There was a Catholic Church and a Greek Catholic Church. The latter is in ruins today.
Eva’s family before the war
Eva’s family was very religious. Her father Israel Vogel was a prosperous businessman who exported Jewish “articles” to Jewish communities throughout Eastern and Central Europe. He was a leader of the Jewish community. Eva’s mother Ita Vogel was born in nearby Jozefow and much younger than her husband. She was liberal in the context of the times and made it possible for Eva to pursue her education (which formally ended at seventh grade).
Eva’s siblings and a cousin before the war
Eva was the oldest of eight children. When the war began in 1939, she was sixteen; Hana was fourteen; Pincus thirteen; Berko twelve; Molly ten; Dora eight; Gezel six; and Aariel one. Eva had six half-siblings: Isaac, Sala, Rebecca, Leo, Marcus, and Moses. Leo lived in New York City where he sold his father’s products. Moses and his American bride left for the United States only days before the outbreak of war (thus the wedding photograph survived).
Henry Galler in 1993
Eva was popular and unique. She dressed in the modern style, loved Polish literature, and always had a book in her hand. She was the only girl in town who played chess with the men – and beat them! As a young girl Eva had many suitors. Henry Galler was a favorite. Many years later he would say that Eva was his “sweetheart” long before the war. They would be separated by the war and reunited in 1946. Everybody else in their families lie in unmarked graves on the sites of former ghettos and former death camps.
Poles held the reins of power in the town government. Jews and Ukrainians were second-class citizens. The different ethnic groups lived side by side but didn’t socialize. Stereotypes about “the other” were shared by all. Yet friendships among Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians were common. Families in this small town had known each other for generations. Children of the three ethnic groups attended school together, although Jews were required to sit on the left side of the classroom, apart from their Polish and Ukrainian peers.
In the documentary Eva describes life before the war: “It was a quiet life. We didn’t know anything better, and we didn’t have any complaints. Everybody lived their own life.”
Blitzkrieg in Poland
Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Two days later England and France declared war on Germany.
An Austrian division of the German army occupied Oleszyce on September 12th. The soldiers were in a playful mood. They cut off the beards and the ear locks of religious Jews (and photographed the exercise). The humiliation, a precursor to destruction, was underway. The Ukrainians believed that Hitler would give them independence. They wildly greeted the invaders. Almost immediately the Gestapo executed the Polish leadership and the “richest” Jews. Eva recalls the arrival of the Germans in Oleszyce: “When they went through the main street, whoever was on the street was shot. But the main objective was just how to start to degrade the Jews. Before they killed them they have to degrade them, turn into nothing.”
The Russians, temporary allies of the Germans, attacked Poland on September 17, 1939, and seized the eastern half of the country. This land grab adhered to the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed on August 23, 1939.
The German army withdrew from Oleszyce, leaving behind fifteen days of terror. The Germans didn’t go far – a mere thirty kilometers to a position on the other side of the San River (the new German-Russian border). The Russians occupied Oleszyce on September 27th and were greeted enthusiastically by many Jews who preferred anybody to the Nazis. This reception was viewed by Poles with displeasure and reinforced the stereotype that Jews and communism were one and the same. The NKVD (Soviet secret police) organized a militia of Jews and Ukrainians and a network of spies (which included Poles).
The Russians imposed a brutal regime on the annexed territories and deported Polish leaders (government people, military officers, teachers, etc.) and their families to the freezing waste-lands of Siberia. Stalin wanted to decapitate the leadership class and further demoralize the population, breaking its will to resist the new order. This was precisely the policy he had pursued against the Russian people during the previous twenty years. The NKVD struck Oleszyce several times in 1940. Many Polish families and two Jewish families were seized in the middle of the night and deported. In Soviet-occupied Poland, between 1940 and 1941, one and a half million people were deported, many never heard from again.
Henry was arrested by the Russians in 1941 after he left a work detail without permission and went home to celebrate Passover. He was given a three year sentence and ended up in a prison in the depths of Russia (Uffa). This turned out to be a lucky break.
Soviet rule in Oleszyce (when Poles were the principal target) lasted nearly two years.
Hitler launched the invasion of Russia on Sunday morning, June 22, 1941. Oleszyce was occupied that morning. The Germans formed a Ukrainian police force and the persecution of the Jews began anew. The Germans, with Ukrainian collaborators following their orders, humiliated and terrorized Jews in public spectacles. This demoralized the Jews and informed Poles and Ukrainians that everybody was entitled to take advantage of them. Many did. The mistreatment of the Jews (further) brutalized the Nazi perpetrators and the Polish and Ukrainian onlookers. Humiliation, starvation, violence, these were steps on the path to the physical destruction.
Eva describes the day when Jews were summoned to the market square and humiliated before an audience of their neighbors: “They were able to do with us what they wanted. The non-Jews watched like a show, and laughed, and we cried. The feeling that time was so painful: ‘Look, we are nothing.’”
The Germans established a Judenrat (Jewish Council) and began extracting bribes from the Jewish community. The Judenrat found itself in the treacherous role of relaying German orders. A group of Jewish policemen was organized – and used as an instrument of German terror. Jews were ordered to wear a white armband with a Star of David. They were forbidden to walk on the sidewalks and given a brisk slap if they did (by a Gentile neighbor as in the case of Eva’s mother). The Judenrat selected men and boys for labor. They were taken to build roads and treated inhumanely. The poorest people were unable to bribe their way out of these labor assignments.
After the Germans attacked Russia, Henry Galler was released from Soviet prison and joined the Polish army in Russia, serving as an artillery officer for the rest of the war (and hiding his Jewish identity).
The mass murder of Polish Jews, called “Operation Reinhard” in recognition of a finance official in Berlin, began on March 17, 1942. The Belzec death camp, located opposite the railroad station in the town of Belzec, was near Oleszyce – on the same railroad line and only three train stations away. Jews were gassed immediately upon arrival at Belzec.
Nazi murderers at Belzec death camp
Several Jewish women and a commando of five-hundred Jewish men were spared (temporarily) in order to work at the camp, the men hauling bodies, the women doing clerical work and house-keeping for the Nazi brutes. The Nazis and their collaborators were murderers and thieves. This was mass murder based on racism and human greed. The Nazis profited handsomely and the ordinary people didn’t go home empty-handed. They stole Jewish possessions, moved into Jewish homes, and took over Jewish shops.
On October 14, 1942, the Jews of Oleszyce (and nearby communities) were ordered to the ghetto in Lubaczow [Lou-batt-choff], a town seven kilometers from Oleszyce. The Nazi killers concentrated the Jewish people in one place, ushering them a step closer to the hour of deportation and murder.
On the day of expulsion from Oleszyce the Jews were given little time to pack and departed their homes with few belongings. Neighbors descended like vultures and fought over Jewish possessions. The Lubaczow ghetto was filth-ridden and impossibly overcrowded. Eva’s family and relatives, thirty-seven in all, lived in a single room. They were lucky to have a room. Eva offers a vivid description of the Lubaczow ghetto: “People lived even on the street. They lived in halls. They lived in the steps they lived in the attics. Where ever they had place. Because of the tightness and proximity and the unsanitary conditions there were epidemics. Different infectious diseases. So we lived so close that they spread very quickly. Many people died. Everyday were funerals.”
While Eva was enduring hardships in the Lubazcow ghetto, The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, her future home, published new details about the slaughter of Jews in Europe. The article appeared on page 2. The headline announced that the Germans were in the process of killing five million Jews
Several weeks later The Times-Picayune published an article on page14 that summarized the War Crimes Declaration passed by the United Nations. The declaration specifically mentioned the atrocities perpetrated against Jews.
Click The Times-Picayune, December 18, 1942 - ALLIES TO PUNISH SLAYERS OF JEWS AT END OF WAR, Practical Steps Being Taken to Catalogue Guilty, Says Hull, (AP) p. 14
For ten months in 1942 trains packed with unsuspecting Jews from Poland and western countries were delivered to the gas chambers at Belzec. Six hundred thousand people were murdered there. The trains passed through Oleszyce and Lubaczow. It wasn’t long before local Jews discovered what was going on. Eva relates the story of a young Jewish man (born in Oleszyce) who escaped from Belzec and brought word of the gas chambers: “But by chance he told us that a German helped him to escape. A German, he found a German who was a saint, and he let him escape. But the boy died anyhow later. He escaped and he told us what had happened. And then everybody was already on alert. We knew what is going to happen with us.”
On January 8, 1943, “a bright cold day,” SS and Ukrainian police, with the assistance of the Jewish police (brothers, fathers, and cousins of the victims), marched the Jews to the train station (two blocks away). The mayhem was extreme. Jews were shot in the streets. Five hundred were taken to a forest and shot. Fifteen hundred were taken to the Jewish cemetery and shot. For days “rows of corpse-filled sleighs” headed out of town to a forest where the corpses were dumped in an old anti-tank ditch (a remnant of Soviet times). One hundred and six Gypsies (Roma) were shot in another forest.
Eva’s family hid behind a “double wall” but was discovered. Four thousand Jews were loaded into the cattle cars. Unlike so many people who preceded them, the Jews in Lubaczow ghetto knew what awaited them at Belzec. Eva describes the liquidation of the ghetto, the loading of the train (“stuffed inside like herrings”), and the start of the journey.
Her father urged the three oldest children to jump out the tiny window: “But my little brother, the youngest, who was three years old, and he started to cry, ‘I want to live too! I want to live too!’ And these words stayed with me the whole life, no matter how I tried to forget.”
Escaping from the train was an act of resistance. The railroad track was lined with bodies of people who jumped from the train and were shot by the guards. Eva survived the jump and walked back to Oleszyce. It was very cold and few people were outside, which was lucky for Eva. She was afraid of ordinary people denouncing her. She found momentary shelter with two women. One was Ukrainian, the other Polish. She had known them before the war. The first woman hid Eva behind a closet: “She let me stay ‘til evening. Later she gave me a shawl to keep warm, half [a loaf of] bread, few Polish zlotys [money], and I went. She told me to go.” The second woman discovered Eva sleeping next to a calf in the barn, trying not to freeze to death. She brought Eva into the house but with the understanding that she would have to leave before daybreak. The woman was afraid that her neighbors would notice that she was helping a Jew and denounce her. In Nazi-occupied Poland the penalty for helping Jews was execution.
“Passing” as a Polish (Catholic) girl but without the mandatory identification documents, Eva walked thirty kilometers in the snow and across the perilous countryside to the city of Jaroslaw where she purchased a ticket and boarded a passenger train to Cracow. She hid in the bathroom from the conductor who was checking identity papers.
Eva slept in the Cracow train station and daily ventured into the city searching for food and fellow Jews. On the third day she was arrested by the Germans in a street round-up. They grabbed young Polish people for labor in Germany. Eva didn’t have the stereotypical Jewish look or a Jewish accent and she managed to hide the fear in her eyes. The Germans didn’t suspect that she was Jewish. To them she looked like a Pole. Eva received identification papers (she gave a false name and place of birth, naturally) and was sent as a Polish “forced laborer” to an Austrian farm on the Czech-Austrian border (in the former Sudetenland). Nearby towns were Kirschfeld and Joslowitz. Eva befriended Polish girls who were also “forced laborers” but told no one that she was Jewish. Eva spent two years working on this farm. The Austrian family treated her well.
Eva was liberated by the Russians in April or May 1945. She returned to Poland (but not to Oleszyce) and lived in Wroclaw (formerly Breslau) with a group of Jewish survivors from Oleszyce. Her friend Annie Wertman planned to marry David Bleiberg.
Eva describes how Henry, dressed in the uniform of a Polish officer, showed up at the wedding: “When he opened door, I was sitting on the chair. I thought I was seeing a ghost. I almost fainted, and Henry came to me and said, ‘We are getting married.’”
Eva flew from Poland to Sweden in July 1946. Five months later Henry smuggled himself out of Poland on a Swedish coal boat.
Eva and Henry were married on December 24, 1946. They had no possessions. Eva borrowed a coat for the ceremony. Two strangers were summoned from the street to be witnesses.
Eva and Henry lived in Sweden for eight years and two of their daughters were born there, but Eva wanted to be reunited with her half-brother Leo Vogel in the United States. The family moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 1954. They were miserable. The neighborhood was filthy. Henry was a tailor and held several jobs. A third daughter was born. The family moved to New Orleans in 1962. Working first at Rubenstein Brothers on Canal Street, Henry soon opened his own business, “Mr. Henry Custom Tailor.” Eva taught Hebrew to Jewish boys preparing for their Bar Mitzvah. She received a history degree from the University of New Orleans in 1985.
Henry and Eva with teachers
For many years Eva and Henry travelled to towns and cities across the Deep South and told their story to students and adults alike. Eva’s message was crystal clear: “I think everybody should be treated equal and everybody should be given a chance. And I hope the history won’t repeat itself. Of course I can’t forget that I had a family, what way my family was taken away from me. I hope that forgiveness will teach people not to do what was done before.”
Eva and Henry lost their home to the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. They moved to Dallas, Texas, where a daughter lived.
Eva died on January 5, 2006. She was buried in Dallas, exiled from her first home and her second. In his final years Henry regaled residents of his retirement home with stories about his experiences during the war. He died October 14, 2012, and was buried next to Eva, his wife of fifty-nine years, both of them from a Jewish world that no longer exists.
Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account, by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli.
The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945, by David Wyman.
I Escaped From Auschwitz, by Rudolf Vrba.