Episode 51: Kristine Keese
The Holocaust survivor, mother, teacher and activist reflects on her coping mechanisms, her ability to find joy, feelings unique to motherhood, her childhood in Nazi-occupied Warsaw as a Jewish 7 year-old, and the special bond she forged with her mother, Eugenia Lubowski Krol, as they fled for their lives.
Paul: Welcome to Episode Fifty-One with my guest Kristine Keese. I'm Paul Gilmartin, this is The Mental Illness Happy Hour and I'm going to cut all the intros and messages and stuff like that short for this episode because this interview is a little on the long side. There's just so much good stuff that I could not cut out of it. I had to leave it at this length that it is. But, yes, so, let's kick it off with a – oh I know what I wanted to tell you. We have a newsletter now that you can sign up for. And if you go to the website, please sign up for that. The website is mentalpod.com I want to kick it off with a quote that Einstein said which I really liked. He said “I must be willing to give up what I am to become what I will be.”
Paul: I'm here with Kristine Keese who I met through her son, actually I just met you five minutes ago she just walked in through door with her son Jeff Rosenthal who I've known for twenty years. Jeff and I were having dinner the other night and - I can't remember how this subject came up but we were talking about the movie Life is Beautiful and you had mentioned that some people protested at the way the Holocaust was presented in that movie. And then you mentioned what your mom had said and I thought Wow that would be, that would be a good guest. That sounds like someone who is very thoughtful and has lived through some trials and tribulations. And seems to have a good attitude and to be very thoughtful.
Kristine: I actually wrote a letter to The New Yorker objecting to their review of the movie which they printed. I can't remember when that was.
Paul: Just briefly, we'll get back into your childhood later but just before you give your opinion of Life of Beautiful - you were raised in Warsaw during World War II and you're Jewish. And so what was, was the letter...
Kristine: You know I really don't remember. Except I think just that the reviewer sort of questioned some of the precepts of the movie that people could live a life, or try to live within the camp a life that was sort of normal. Do you remember the letter at all Jeff?
Jeff: I do it was actually that, you had pointed out that because there were over six million people affected by the war, that there were as many different version of the story. And that to think that there was only one way to tell the story was very naive. And that actually, I think that you had also mentioned that there were elements of your childhood that felt like a fairy tale. Or you were kept safe by the notion that what was going on was not necessarily always exactly as the world saw it later. But anyway, the basic premise being it was ok to show a different view of the war than just having one rigid concept of it.
Kristine: I think I felt that my experience was somewhat different because I was of a particular age where I really didn't know anything different. So there was a normality to it which wasn't there for other people – for the adults.
Paul: What year were you born?
Paul: So you were six when the -
Kristine: I was six when the war started and I was seven and eight in the Warsaw ghetto. So, and, it just seemed it was you know – that was the life that we had and there were certain priorities such as survival. And aside from that, the result being that I have a very exact and detailed memory of everything that went on. Whereas my mother who was with me at the end of the war didn't have that. And she kind of blocked it out. A lot of my survival had to do with my mother who was very determined that we should survive. And she not only saved me but she also saved her younger brother who she had promised her parents she would take care of. So there was quite a burden because we were Jewish and he was a male who was circumcised. And in Poland only Jews are circumcised. It was very easy -
Paul: So that's a give away.
Kristine: - to identify so basically if you were a Jewish male you had to pretty much stay hidden. Because anybody could stop you and decide that, you know, they wanted to see what you looked like and then you were stuck. So, I always had a feeling that my mother's own survival really was determined by the fact that she had to keep me and her brother alive.
Paul: And how old would your mom have been at this point?
Kristine: About twenty-nine, thirty.
Kristine: When the war started I was at my grand parents because that's where I spent summers and the war started in September. And I was still with my grand parents and so I was not in Warsaw when it was attacked and bombed. But my grand parents decided that -
Paul: Were these your mom's parents?
Kristine: Yes, my mother's parents. And they - there was obviously a lot of talk about the war all around me which, you know, I must have just gotten the tone of and the sense of urgency because people are always turning on the radio and listening to the radio and shushing everybody so they could hear the news. And I remember having my first memory actually of the war was a dream I had at my grand parents house - that there were people lined up on two sides of the street. The Germans were on one side of the street fighting and the Pols were on the other side of the street fighting and that they were shooting at each other of across the street. And that was kind of my image of what a war was. So I remember having that dream. And then my grandparents as did everybody in the surroundings – they were in a town that was like, something like fifty-four miles, eight miles north of Warsaw - everybody decided that the thing to do was to pack up and go to Warsaw to be safe.
Kristine: The notion I guess being, and I don't really fully understand it, but the notion I guess was that the city would be the most defended.
Paul: Ah. Yeah I guess that makes sense.
Kristine: Possibly. So everybody packed up and my grandparents, they had a business. And they had a wagon that they used for distributing the products – my grandfather had a soap factory. And they had a wagon with horses and packed up as much as they could and me and loaded us on the wagon. And I think it was at night because I remember waking up. I knew that they were packing but I had fallen asleep - they must have put me on the wagon while I was asleep. I remember waking up in the middle of the night because the wagon had stopped and there were like soldiers around us, there Polish soldiers but they had gas masks on. So I just woke up and there were these creatures leaning over the wagon with these strange faces.
Paul: Oh my God.
Kristine: And I don't know whether at the time I knew they were gas masks, but I remember that was kind of like a dream – these kind of weird creatures leaning over and these were soldiers with gas masks turning everybody back saying, 'this is ridiculous, the roads are being bombed, and the city's being bombed. You do not want to go to Warsaw. You want to turn around and go back.' So that was -
Paul: Did your family turn around and go back to the country?
Kristine: Went back. But we had no news of my mother who was in Warsaw. So there were several, and I really don't know how much time had passed, when my mother arrived on some kind of, you know a lot of people were basically hitchhiking getting transportations from whatever was available. So she arrived on another -
Paul: So she got out of Warsaw temporarily.
Kristine: -wagon or something. And she was, she had a few belongings with her. And it turned out that the house we lived in had been bombed and burnt down. By that time I guess the war was, as far as Poland was concerned, Poland had already capitulated by the time she got there. It must have been, probably a week or more. And she was weeping and my grandparents thought that she had heard some bad news about her husband who was my step father whom she had married a year before the war and was drafted into the army or was a reservist in the army and was gone with the army. And she said, no she had to give her dog up. And she was crying about her dog because we had this German Sheppard and apparently the house was bombed and it burned down. And she lost the dog in the commotion of that. And some few days later somebody told her that they saw her dog lying on the ruins of the house. It was an apartment building but he was on the ruins of the apartment building. And he looked starved and he won't go with anybody. So she went and got the dog. The dog had been hurt I think he had, it looked like he had been nicked by a bullet in his leg. And It was kind of a wild German Sheppard and what happened after that is she thought that he might have - must have been shot by a German soldier because every time he saw somebody in a German uniform he would go crazy and try to attack them. So that was not a good dog to have with you while this was going on. She didn't know what to do because she was very attached to the dog.
Paul: Although I do love the idea of a German Sheppard attacking Germans.
Kristine: And they did have dogs, a lot of them had dogs. So he would see someone in a German uniform and he would just go crazy. So she finally was able to get him out of the city and somewhere along the road she stopped at a farmer's house and asked them if they could possibly take the dog. They said you know, he's a really good guard dog, you can use him as a guard dog and they agreed to take him. And so she arrived all weepy because she had just given the dog up.
Paul: But at least she knew it was safe. Which is nice.
Kristine: Yeah I guess. So that's how it all started. Then she took me back to Warsaw, and I really don't remember how we went there.
Paul: So what was the idea in going back to Warsaw? Was it because Poland had capitulated it was deemed, Ok well now the war part is over, it's just an occupation and that's going to be safe enough.
Kristine: Right, yeah, that's part of it. But there was another part which is when Germany came into Poland they - basically the idea was that they would annex Poland to Germany. Except that they cut out a space around Warsaw and they call it a self governing part. And so some of the restrictions, and just the way people were treated, there was supposed to be a self-governing area that still had Polish authority over it. Whereas everything else including where my grandparents were was now being annexed into Germany. And the treatment of Jews was very different right away.
Paul: Germany actually respected this self-governing area?
Kristine: Well it had different, it had Polish police that was kind of in charge. And it was considered to be, we had some names in German, but it was considered to be semi-self governing. The rules were different. So that - no, Poland actually shortly before the war which is something that helped us a lot, my mother that is, had a new constitution which took away any indications of your religion from your documents. So people had a passport that did not say you were Jewish. And that was a big advancement and I think that happened in 1933, or something like that. Thirty-two.
Paul: And was that kind of, people could hear the drums of war and knowing that this was -
Kristine: I don't think so. I think it was just kind of a trend toward democracy that was going on because of the new president that they had and such.
Paul: I see. That probably saved a lot of people.
Kristine: Yes, except well, it was very complicated. It helped my mother because her name was a very Polish sounding name. So with that passport and her Polish sounding name she, she actually used it at one point. The thing being that, the first thing the Germans did when they came in, they asked everyone to register, all the Jews to register. And most of the people registered. So they had lists of everybody.
Paul: Oh I see.
Kristine: But in Warsaw, the Jews eventually had to wear armbands. White armbands with the blue star of David on them. Anyone over the age of twelve.
Paul: Which I think most people have, when you see the documentary that's kind of the image -
Kristine: But in the part where my grand parents were and in the Poland that was incorporated into Germany, they wore yellow stars on their backs. And they had to walk off the sidewalk. So it was quite a more horrific thing.
Paul: And this was out in the country where your -
Kristine: Where my grand parents were.
Paul: Where you grand parents were. That's funny because I wouldn't – well funny's not the right word. Interesting because I - when you think of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw and Poland generally you think of Warsaw as being the absolute worst place to be in Poland. But it was the countryside.
Kristine: Yeah. Well, you know it's a mixed bag. Because in the country a lot of the people ended up joining the partisans in the woods, the Jews did. There were some other avenues of escape. But in a lot of these places where there was not a ghetto, where they weren't putting people into an enclosed part of the city, they were just killed. So. It kind of depended, who your neighbors were and what people liked you or didn't like you and whether they wanted to turn you in.
Paul: And then you throw in the whole thing about Russia – for people that aren't familiar about the details of World War Two, Russia was originally, when Germany first invaded, they divvied up Poland with Russia. Germany was pretending to be Russia's friend. And Poland being wedged between Germany and Russia and actually one of the things I saw in this documentary was the largest road between Berlin and Moscow ran right through Warsaw. So it was strategically of huge importance and literally couldn't be probably a worse place strategically on earth in World War Two than to be in Warsaw because you're literally in the jaws of these two ruthless empires.
Kristine: Except that a lot of people at that point, a lot of people who had the means which is like a lot of people who were in various diplomatic cores and had access to cars and limousines and transportation - A lot of these people immediately went east into Russia. And these people survived. We had a lot of friends who came back after the war from the Soviet Union. And they may have had a hard time or whatever but they survived. One of them was my real father.
Kristine: Yes. But my father went and he got stuck somewhere in-between like you say. And when the Russians kept changing sides and then they attacked again, he would get arrested by the Germans put in jail and then the Russians would come in, they'd let everyone out of jail and then the Germans would come back in. Somehow in one of those exchanges, I assume under the Germans he did die. He was killed. My uncle, my mother's younger brother who was the one she was charged by her parents to protect and did also went with his cousins and some other family members who did survive. Went to Russia and they had a terrible crossing and they got frostbite on their feet and he got very upset. Because he was very attached to the family, that he left my mother and that he was going, he was saving himself by going to Russia and he came back. To Warsaw. And all I remember when he came back and that he had frostbite on his feet and my mother was taking care of him. And she said, 'tomorrow I'm packing you up and you're going right back.' And he cried. And said he wasn't going to leave, he was not going to leave, he couldn't go and she said all right you can stay.
Paul: And where were the -
Kristine: And he must have been twenty-one or something.
Paul: Where were their parents that they had charged her with -
Kristine: Well they were in this little town that was incorporated into Germany. Where I was when the war started.
Paul: I see because they weren't in Warsaw proper.
Kristine: No. They were like eighty miles north of Warsaw. And it became part of the Reich. My mother wanted them to come to Warsaw, it's always, things are so mixed up because but I think if they did we might not have survived. My mother did everything she could to make them come. And my grandfather owned a soap factory which was requisitioned by the Germans but they put him in charge of it. So his idea was that he was necessary, they couldn't run this factory without him. And because of that he felt assured of his survival.
Paul: And did he survive?
Kristine: No. They were both, both my grandparents as far as I know were taken and gassed or whatever.
Paul: What is that like not knowing what became of somebody and - what's that like?
Kristine: I don't – when I was child, and when I was in the ghetto and, basically all the friends were gone by the time I was eight years old and we got out of the ghetto, all of the friends I had were gone.
Paul: And you were how old? Eight?
Kristine: Yeah. And my image of that was like dropping off the edge of the world into some black hole. That was the image that I had all through my childhood of what happened to everybody and what would happen to me if I didn't step back from whatever these holes were, which happened a couple of times. So, it was like a, just a blackness and that's it. But I think you know, you asked me before, I said to you before that I'm a cheerful person and I said probably it's because of denial well maybe that's part of the, you know, not letting into your conscious the things you can't deal with. And I guess that's a definition of denial, maybe.
Paul: Yeah I don't know. I don't know if that's denial or if that's, because you're not denying the fact of what happened, you're just not creating a picture that is detailed to the point that it causes you unnecessary anguish or agony. That's kind of how I look at – who knows where the truth is and I suppose there's a thousand different, each person has their own truth like your opinion on the movie Life is Beautiful. So you're eight years old -
Kristine: You take the good parts and you say these good parts I can be in control of. The bad parts I can't be in control of so that's not what I'm going to focus on.
Paul: One of the things I always say on this podcast is when we go through difficult things in life, sometimes if we keep our eyes open and our, this sounds cheesy but, our hearts open as well sometimes there are beautiful moments in the worst of circumstances. Were there any moments for you, moments of beauty or humanity that you recall from those terrible times? Or is just kind of a vague gray -
Kristine: No, I mean there's a lot of detail. I can't think of anything that is really positive except maybe some friendships and relationships but then, you know, these people then were gone. I mean, there are funny stories that I told my kids like my mother, and my uncle and I – Well actually ok I'll tell you some pleasant things. My mother, my uncle and I lived in one room in the Warsaw ghetto. And we had a coal stove which was used for heat and also to cook on. There was no electricity by that time. And my mother worked in this cafe that always also kind of gets people, people have strange feelings about - there was a cafe, with music and all sorts of things that people came to in the evening, in the ghetto. So my mother would leave him supper on the stove and then I would kind of take care of it until he came home to eat, and she had gone to work. But I used to read, I read a lot, I went through every book that I could get my hands on and maybe that was another one of my escapes. When I read I completely lost track of reality. And because there was no electricity, I used to end up reading holding the book out the window where there was the last of the light - you know there were those windows that were like french windows, open to the sides that's how the windows were in the apartment building. And I used to go closer and closer to the window until finally my hands were stretched outside the window while I was reading the book. So I read this book, I don't know what the book was but I got totally absorbed in it, and he came home and his supper which was on the stove which was some potato and meat or something was charcoal. And the room was filled with smoke. And he was furious and he said to me, 'my supper is all burned, couldn't you tell it was burning?' And I said, 'Gee I'm sorry, I didn't know it was burning.' And he said, 'well the room is filled with smoke.' And I said, 'Yes I know, I opened the windows.' So that was one of the things.
And then my mother had sort of an admirer who was kind of a questionable character, that people worried about because he seemed to have more freedom of movement than people had. I'll tell you more about that. But I used to go to the cafe and hang around and sometimes I would – the pleasant moments - and sometimes they had a magic show and the magician used to use me for like being the person out of whose ear he'd pull out the coins or something. So that was a lot of fun. But my mother waited on tables so he would sit down with me and - the way pastries are served in Europe usually you just get a big tray and then you take whatever you want and at the end the waitress takes away the tray and charges you for what's gone. So my mother would be the one to bring the tray and he'd say 'just leave it here.' And not only was I always hungry but I also always liked sweets. So he would just have me eat whatever I wanted off this tray. And my mother who was waiting on tables would come and she would say 'No, no, don't have her eat all this!' And he would say, 'No, I'm paying, she's my guest and she can eat whatever she wants off of this tray.'
Paul: That must have been heaven to be able to eat all those sweets during the war.
Kristine: Yeah that was, so that was one of those nice moments.
Paul: So I take it that this time period was between the capitulation and the uprising.
Kristine: No. No, well you mean - there were two uprisings. The ghetto, I'm trying to remember – I think the way it worked was that the Jews were first all registered. Then there were told to move into certain sections of town so that all the Jews could only live in certain parts of town. But of course there were non-Jews living in those parts of town. So there was a lot of exchange of apartments going on. So people would go into, give up their apartments and whoever wasn't Jewish had to actually move out of those sections and the Jews had to move in. And that took awhile. And in 1942, I have it all down somewhere because I started writing the sequence but I don't remember. But you can get that on the internet too. Some time at that point when finally all the Jews that the Germans knew about had moved into the ghetto, into those sections of town - and there were two sections. There was something that was called a large Ghetto which incorporated the large Jewish section that already existed which was more of a run down commercial kind of part. And then there was another part which was called the Small Ghetto which were other streets and there was a big bridge that went between them over a large intersection of town. Because otherwise they were separated by a major thoroughfare. So they built a bridge from the large ghetto to the small ghetto. And at one point, and it almost seemed like overnight, there was a wall built around those sections and that was it. And the Ghetto was closed off. With just a few check points around that you could go in and out if you had papers and stuff like that.
Paul: Were you in the large or the small?
Kristine: We were in the small ghetto.
Paul: And was it very very crowded?
Kristine: Um I supp – Yeah it was crowded. The large ghetto was more crowded than the small ghetto just because it was just for more a commercial section of town. All I know is that we ended up renting a room from a couple that had an apartment. And I had recently, there is a movie that just came out of some footage that was taken by German soldiers in the ghetto – which was actually being filmed -
Paul: I just watched that last night.
Kristine: Oh really?
Paul: Yeah, yeah it was about forty-eight minutes long and it was undiscovered footage from the Warsaw ghetto.
Kristine: Yes. Exactly. Ok, well I saw that and I remembered the filming.
Kristine: Yes I remember that they filmed. And I remember that they filmed – there is a section where there are women sunbathing in bathing suits. That was on the roof of the house that I lived in. Paul: Really.
Kristine: And I asked my son about it, and I said could – he said he couldn't tell that it was on the roof. He just wondered why the surface they were on was kind of rough and weird looking. It was a roof of a two story building. So I saw the house and the weird thing is that I had remembered the building we lived in as a tall apartment building and then I recognized the house. It was very - you know it's like you recognize something but you don’t think that's the way that it's going to look and yet you recognize it. So I recognized the building and I'm saying, 'Wow that is the house we lived in and it's only two stories high.' And I had remembered it as a tall apartment building. And then I'm thinking to myself, well wait a minute, we lived on the second floor and I don't remember that anybody lived above us.
Paul: And also you're a kid and everything seems so gigantic when you're a kid. That's so funny. I was watching that last night, knowing that I was going to interview you today and thinking as I was watching – I wonder if she's ever seen that from that angle. I wonder if she remembers that bridge.
Kristine: I remember when they came and filmed because they were filming the women on the roof. And there was a lot of feelings around people – no don't be there, don't let them film you, and some people wanted to be filmed. And other people didn’t want to be filmed and felt it wasn't right. So I remember that. I didn't know I was Jewish. My parents were not religious. And it was never talked about. And one of the things when we went into the ghetto, I felt very resentful of being there with all these Jews. I mean, what do I have in common with these people? And I once said something and my uncle got really mad at me. And I felt like, it was you know an Indignity. That I had to be there with all these people. I didn't think, that I had no idea I was, in any way belonged with - But my step-father at that point was in South America. In Brazil. For various adventures that are long and complicated. But he left money in Brazil for somebody in Brazil to keep sending us food packages. But the food packages were things like coffee, canned fruit, and sardines - there were things that were a luxury. So my mother would do better by selling them and buying us bread than for us to use those things. But in order to sell them she had to sell them to restaurants that were on the other side, that on the Aryan side, not inside the ghetto. This was my mother's thing. And she had this friend who seemed to be helping her go in and out. Very romantic character who rode a motorcycle. And I don't really - you know, the trouble is that my mother is not alive anymore and sometimes I wish that I could have asked her things. But by the time we came here with my step-father who was very jealous of her time away from him, so those things were never talked about. But anyhow, she would go out and sell the things she got to restaurants and come back with real food. Except for one time when a can of something came that had no, the label had come off. And I really remember it so vividly so it must have been such a treat. The label came off she didn't know what was inside so she couldn't sell it and we opened the can and it was pineapple, cut in long wedges. I had never had pineapple before. It was just an amazing thing to have. But, my mother used to go in and out of the ghetto and she was a very attractive young woman at the time. And she claimed that she did it simply by - the entrances to the ghetto were like – there was a Polish police man on the Aryan side. There was a German in the middle and there was a Jewish policeman on the ghetto side. There was Jewish police which did not have a very good history. And she said that she – and there was always people milling about, you know, showing their papers or trying to get out or trying to bribe somebody to get out. That she would to get out of the ghetto she try to would edge as close as she could to the Aryan side and then whoever stopped her, she would say she wanted to go into the ghetto. To see somebody or something, and they would say 'well do you have papers.' And she'd say 'No but I really just want to go in.' And they would say 'no you can't go in' and they would get impatient with her and wave her away and she'd leave.
Paul: That's hilarious.
Kristine: She said she had a much harder time getting back in. She would have to try to convince them that she really belonged inside and stuff like that.
Paul: Really? How bizarre.
Kristine: It was - But she used to do this and there was a curfew. And many times when she went out she didn't come back by curfew time. And my uncle would start tearing out his hear and saying, 'This is it, that's it, she must have gotten killed. This is terrible.' And I'd be there thinking - ok, how do I take this? And I had a mechanism that I used, which is I said to myself: Ok now you got the news that your mother's dead. What do you do next? And I would go through a procedure – I would say, well I would go to this neighbor and I would tell them such and such. And then I'd get my clothes and then I'd do this and I would just go through this entire rehearsal until she came back. In the ghetto people were being continually selected for deportation, what they called deportation was really going to camps or directly to gas chambers. And you got taken to this railroad station on Startplatz and put on the train to, you know - they were supposedly moved to the east or something.
Paul: Did everybody know that they were going to die?
Kristine: After a while. After a while because the story is that some guys followed the rail road tracks. And realized what they - No, they marked the trains and realized the trains came back two hours later so they couldn't have been going to where they said they were going, because that same car came right back. So then they followed the rail road tracks and they got to the gas chambers, concentration camps and so forth. But my uncle because he worked at the rail road station he could actually go in and out of there and move around and he knew the back doors so he had actually saved some people by leading them out if there was - People were usually masked in this waiting station while waiting to go on the trains. And at that point, he was able to get some people out. The selections were constantly refined so that you had to be working and then you had to - or the head of the house hold, the head of the house hold had some kind of work papers then the house hold safe. Everyone was asked to come out of the building and then you get lined up and show your documents and they say: 'right or left.' And some people got taken away and some people were left. A little horror story of that, is I remember one time a guy had a suitcase in his hand and he was spared because he had the correct papers and suddenly the suitcase made funny noises. And they opened it up and there was a baby inside. He was put in the other category of people to be taken away.
Paul: And you saw this happen or you heard it?
Kristine: No I was there. These are the kinds of things, that I don't - they're not constant memories with me. If I talk to somebody I remember, I mean, I can access that and it sort of shakes me up but then it's gone. It's not something I think about a lot. My other kind of weird memory like that is a lot of places you walked there were starving children on the street. And my mother and I had gone some place and we were able to get a loaf of bread and she was carrying it back and a kid just run up and bit into the loaf of bread. And she said, she just let him have it and we went home. So, and there were like dead bodies on the street because of a typhus epidemic. People were dying of that. I had a great aunt, my grandmother's younger sister who was a doctor in the ghetto. So, when my mother, they lived like a couple of blocks away from us in the ghetto. I used to often take my meals with them. So my mother would work, I would walk over to their house and have dinner with them and then come home. But my uncle because of where he was working, he could do two things. He could bring us food because he was unloading food for the Germans so he would bring us food. And he also would tell us when the next, where the next selection was going to happen. Eventually, my mother used her pre-war passport which had her maiden name on it and then was able to pass as his wife cause he had the same name and we could use his work papers. But after awhile it wasn't just the head of the household that had to be working so you could be spared but everybody had to be working. So my mother, there was a factory that made German uniforms called Tepens. And my mother went, my mother always had a network of people that she, that were helping her and that knew things. She went to work at Tepens. And at Tepens they had children, there were lots of women working their sewing machines and they had a room where all the children could go and play. When my mother refused to be separated from me and I was tall for my age, I was eight years old. She put high heels on me and a kerchief on my head she sat me behind a sewing machine next to her. Actually, I just got, a few years ago I got some money from the Germans for being a slaver laborer and it was my wages. It wasn't very much, but I was only there for I don't know, maybe a month.
Paul: Did you experience any emotion when you got that?
Kristine: Well, it's an interesting story because that money got taken for some debt of my husbands that I didn't even know about. And it was gone. One time the Germans came and they took all the children that were in the childrens area. There was a huge commotion and a lot of the women tried to go after them. And they just came with the big trucks and loaded up all the kids.
Paul: And you saw this happen?
Kristine: Yeah. I mean, some of that it's like a dream. Stuff like that, because I heard it happen. I didn't look, I mean there was commotion and crying, there were people screaming. What penetrated to me was more my mother saying, 'See I knew this would happen that's why you're here.' So, there was this, my mother protecting me from and you have to do, in other words I think what maybe it does, it, the protection is that you have to cut some empathy. I don't know if you think I'm not an empathetic person. I think sometimes I'm not. In other words, I can only take so much misery from other people and then I'm very active in trying to help them fix it. But if they don't fix it or they don't want to hear my advice about fixing it, they just want to keep telling me how miserable they are, I do cut off empathy I think.
Paul: I think that's super healthy.
Paul: Oh absolutely. At some point you have to take care of yourself. If someone's not willing to get into the solution, you know that doesn't mean they have to do everything that you suggest. If they just want to be in self-pity and wallow in self-pity and not work towards a solution I think the healthiest thing in the world is to distance yourself from them. Not forever, but temporarily and to say, hey with love: I have to detach from you because it's too painful for me to be around you and to see you in this state where you're not willing to help yourself or try something, you know. I think playing victim is an addiction for a lot of people because then they don't have to take responsibility for themselves. I think that's a very very addicting quality because in some way it reverts us back to childhood. What are your opinions on...?
Kristine: Well, I mean, sometimes I think that it's almost like a physical drive towards life, you know? That maybe it's not intellectual, maybe some people just don't have the life force and other people have more of a life force. But to me I can feel very upset about something and go outside and look at trees and flowers and get suddenly really uplifted by the fact that the world out there is incredibly constructed. You know, that flowers bloom in the spring and that whole thing is amazing. And it will cheer me up tremendously. You know that maybe by having your life threatened that just the idea of being alive can get very exciting.
Paul: Is it fair to say that you're happy to wake up every day and there's a certain vigor?
Kristine: Yeah I think so. I think so. I mean, I sometimes get annoyed with myself because I get into situations that I don't know how to get out of them and then I spend a lot of time wanting to get out. But generally I try not to persist in situations that don't make me happy. What was different about the Holocaust is that people were actually dehumanizing a population that had once been part of them. And that seems to me to be the weird thing. And what happened in Poland was that while we were in the ghetto, at one point there was a whole lot of German Jews that arrived on their way to the – where ever, gas chambers or whatever. We didn't know what they were. We know that all of a sudden all these people appeared who seemed really starved and done in and they were in transit. And I think they were there overnight. It seems like ghosts. I had read about it later that these were German. But we knew they were German. And it was at that point that people in the ghetto said, 'if they are doing this to their own people then forget about your survival. You're not going to make it.' At this point the war was on going and they couldn't spare much of the army. They couldn't spare much of the army, so the people who were, the Germans who were involved in deporting Jews inside the ghetto were Hitler Jugen. They were eighteen, nineteen years old. At that point we were moving from house, my uncle would come and he would tell us which house had just been emptied and we would go there. Those are some of the things I'm imprinted with. Moving from house to house. And entering a house where people had been just been taken out of. And we entered an apartment where there was still food on the table, like people were caught in the middle of a meal. And there were photographs thrown all over the floor. And it looked like people had pulled out drawers and were searching through them to see what they wanted to take with them since everybody thought they were being taken some place where they might survive. And I have a thing about photographs. I really don't like to take photographs, I don't like to have photographs that much. And I think it dates to that moment of seeing all these photographs all over the floor of people I didn't know who they were.
And after they took the children from the Tepens factory, they came a couple of days later and emptied out the whole factory. And my mother said to me, 'there's this guy over there, he really looks like he knows what he's doing, let's follow him. So where everybody was supposed to be emptying out the building, we went with, followed this man. And he went into the basement and he apparently had some friends outside who were on a work shift who then closed up the entrance to the basement with bricks. And there were thirteen people in there. And we could hear everybody leaving the building and we could hear the Germans marching around and looking for people. Eventually they left. And while I was there, there was a really unpleasant event which is that I had just gotten over being sick with some kind of chest thing. I was prone to coughs. And I started to cough. And while the Germans were still meandering about and people got really upset. They were really terrified. And basically said that 'we better kill her. Because she's going to give us away.' And my mother said, 'No, no, I'll take care of it.' And she put her hand over my mouth so I couldn't cough. And I started suffocating. I just remember it was a really horrible thing. It was ok because it was my mother and I knew she wasn't going to let me die, but I was choking. It was really horrible. Those thirteen people stayed together. So, we moved around the city with my uncle giving us some information about where to go and stuff. And when we eventually got caught it was the same group of people. And they asked everyone to leave the building and my mother said, 'There's a closet under the stairs, and we're going to hide in it.' And I was terrified of hiding. I think partly from that experience of having my, of choking and not being able to cough. And the thing that to me was the worst, was when I was most terrified of, and I was eight years old. Of just being, someone opening a door and seeing me there and shooting me. And just dying like a rat, basically. And I said to my mother, and I was like that as a kid, it was funny because a lot of things that I wanted to do I wouldn't let my mother do. And I said, 'you go ahead and hide if you want to but I'm going out there. I'm not going to hide in the closet.' So of course, she came. So we were taken directly to the train station. And my mother said, well don't worry because her brother is there and he can probably get us out. But she didn't quite want to depend on that. So, and people kept and that's why I started with that these were young kids, Hilter jugen. People were led six across down the street and it was the middle of the night, to the train station. And they were saying to these guys, 'let me go, let me go, here's my diamond ring.' And these eighteen year olds were saying, 'I got all the diamond rings I need. I don't want your diamond ring.' And then my mother had a little Viennese watch that my father had given her, it was like a miniature watch. And she said 'would you take this?' And the kid said, 'Oh yeah my girlfriend will really like that.' So he took it. So we're walking and my mother says, 'Well what, you took my watch.' And he said, 'well I'm not going to take you by the hand.' So as we were walking down the street, there was a side street and my mother grabbed me and pulled me and we run down the side street. And the whole idea was when you bribe somebody you expected that they would shoot after you. They have to because to show to the others, but that they wouldn't shoot to hit. And that always fascinated me was the idea that basically all these youths being herded were really not human. There was absolutely no penalty for shooting somebody because these guys used to get drunk or not get drunk, just walk down the street at night and shoot people when they felt like it inside the ghetto. But when you made a commercial transaction with somebody that seemed to me that in some way made you human. So now there was a contract. And you know, he could have taken that watch and he could have still shot us. And no one would have cared.
Paul: But that wouldn't have been nice.
Kristine: That's right. Isn't that amazing? I always find that, I found that really amazing.
Paul: It is, that's fascinating.
Kristine: I always thought that was just an amazing thing. But anyways we run down the street but right now we're in the middle of the night when there's a curfew. And it was raining, it was October. And we run into a door way of a building somewhere, just to get out of the rain and we hear a patrol coming down the street. Down the whatever it was in there. And it's a Polish policeman and a German. And my mother was wearing an arm band, I wasn't cause you didn't have to til you were twelve. So the first thing she did was take her arm band off and she stuffed it in her purse. And I started to run into the building and she said, 'no, no, no, we're going to go out and we're going to talk to them.' And she took me by the hand, and she approached this patrol with a peasant accent, which my mother could do, and started haranguing them. She said 'I came here to do some trading because they told me this was the best place and that you could sell things for a lot of money and you could get - but it's horrible. It's raining and I'm with my child and I can't get out of here. And it's dangerous and there's shooting and could you please tell me how I can get out of here?' And they said 'look lady we don't know what to do, we can't help you, just leave us alone.' And she just keep doing it, she just kept haranguing them. I just got to get out of here, somebody's got to tell me what to do, I mean I had no idea it was going to be like that, nobody warned me, that that's how it was in here and I just really, I thought I was just going to make some money, and I don't know what to do. And they said, 'well, we need a bicycle, do you know where we can get a bicycle?' And she said, 'no I have no idea where you can get anything. You got to get me out of here.' And they said, 'Look lady, just leave us alone.' And they walked off.
Kristine: And she said that her only fear was that I was so pale, that she was afraid I was going to pass out. And I was afraid that they were going to ask to see some documents. And if she opened the bag she would have her arm band in the bag. So after that, she said, 'This is it. We're getting out of here.' Meantime she's trying to get a message to my uncle that we're ok. And she finally found a Jewish police man and she had promised him, and who had told her that he would let him know because he was going down to the rail road station. And she had told him to tell him to call her, or she was going to call him because there were actually public telephones you could use. She would call him at the rail road station at a given time. Mean time, back at the ranch, my uncle realized that, heard that this house was raided. And realized that these people were not going to be sitting in the station where he thought he could get us out. That they were being put directly onto the train. So he decided to go too. And he packed a little suitcase and he lined up to go with everybody on to the train. And the people who were with us, who he knew because we had been traveling together started motioning to him that we're not there. And he didn't believe it. He decided that my mother told them to do that to protect him and that he would just get on the train and he'd find us on the train. And apparently at some last minute this policeman who my mother talked to, or somebody got a message to him that we really are not there. And he left.
Paul: And he almost got on the train.
Kristine: Yeah, yeah. He was just about to get -
Paul: And he would have gone to Treblinka or Auschwitz.
Kristine: That's right. He was about to get on the train.
Paul: Oh my God.
Kristine: So finally he came and met us as soon as curfew was over which was six in the morning. And I remember that was such an emotional meeting, it was like – and my mother said to him, 'This is it, I'm not staying here for another minute. We're getting out of here.' So and I had, because we had been traveling from place to place I had like three layers of clothes on and I had a knapsack with a pillow and some little odds and ends. And that day we went from ghetto gate to gate, there were several gates, these check points for entering, trying to get out. And people were bribing their way out, but you had to bribe three individuals – the Polish policeman, the Jewish policeman and the German. And my mother didn't have any money, all she had was jewelry. And they said, 'Sorry Lady we can't take jewelery because we don't know how to divide that up.' It was all as simple as that.
Paul: It's really, in so many ways it comes down to commerce.
Kristine: I know. Isn't that -
Paul: So what happened?
Kristine: I've always liked Hannah Arendt's book The Banality of Evil because always when you get down to it, there's something really banal about it. Well, she met some other people that she knew and they said, well there is a guy who is a, there's a man who is a, what do you call it, like a caretaker of this – there was this court building one of these huge buildings that went over a couple of blocks and it had an entrance on the ghetto side but it also had an entrance on the Aryan side. He said, there's a guy who's like a caretaker of that building and if you meet him at that entrance after five o'clock when the building's closed he'll take people through the building and he's just one person to bribe. So a whole group of people gathered and this elderly gentleman who was the janitor of the building collected stuff from everybody that he got paid for and took us up through the building - up the staircase, down another stair case, out another door. And I had another one of those seminal moments. I had a - I'm a clumsy person. I had a cake of soap in my knapsack and as we got topped to this marble stairs the cake of soap fell out of my knapsack and went bang, bang, bang, bang, down all the stairs.
Paul: Oh my God.
Kristine: And that was another one of those moments. But anyway nothing happened. We all got out on the other side and now we're in a city which seems perfectly normal with people walking around. It was - that's the insane part of it. You come out of a place where everybody is about to be killed. And the other weird thing that happened in the ghetto that year is the trees didn't bloom. They didn't get new leaves on. I I remember that was very eerie, and I thought maybe because there was a lot of smoke, I don't really know why but it was a different vegetation. But it's just a block away and you walk out of the door and you're in the same city one block away and it's a perfectly normal city with buses and tram ways and people walking around, going home and shopping.
Paul: And the demeanor of people, was it just night and day?
Kristine: It was just normal. And my mother said to me, I mean we obviously looked weird, you know I had all these weird clothes on, we didn't know how much the bus fare was. And my mother said to me, 'Now just pretend we're from the country. So get on the bus and look up and say 'wow look at these big buildings, have you ever seen such big buildings before?' And so, her thing was always good you know, instead of hiding you attract attention to yourself but lead people in another direction.
Paul: Right with the police man about pretending she was selling something and pissed off.
Kristine: Yeah. She was always very good like that. I've used that with getting stuff or getting a ticket of deluding with so much trivial that they say 'All right lady just go on, don't do this again.' So we came out and it was close, it was evening and again there was an evening curfew. And we basically had no place to go, we just dumped on the street.
Paul: And it's just you and your mother at this point?
Kristine: Yeah my mother. And actually this guy who took us through since I think we must have been more lost than other people in the group. He walked us for a couple of blocks just so we could start feeling a little more self assured. And then my mother remembered that my step-father had an aunt who had married a catholic and had converted and nobody knew that she was Jewish. And she lived in Warsaw and she had an apartment. So she said we'll go over there. So we took the bus and we went over there. I mean this is a city my mother had lived in it's not like she's in a strange place. We go over there and the woman opens the door and she sees us and she's totally terrified. I mean at this point there was a death penalty for harboring a Jew. And she says 'you can't stay here, you know you can't do this to me, how dare you, we can all get killed.' And my mother said 'Look it's almost curfew we're going to stay here till five o'clock tomorrow morning when the curfew is lifted, but I'm staying here tonight.' So she made us crawl on the floor so nobody could see us though the windows. That there were other people in her house. And she was totally horrible and terrified and came five o'clock we left. And my mother remembered that she had a friend who had an apartment in Warsaw. And she kept that apartment, she didn't let it. When she moved into the ghetto she moved in with her husband who was an attorney and he was a fairy well known attorney and she moved into the ghetto with him but she kept her apartment with an old family maid. An old family retainer who brought her up. Who my mother knew because this was, you know, like in Poland you have a peasant woman who comes and lives with you and is the maid, and the nanny. And this was a childhood friend so my mother had been in and out of that house. So she went there and she knocked on the door and the woman recognized her. And she said we had no place to stay and she said, 'Well look there's plenty of room here. Just stay as long as you like, I don't care. I'm here all by myself. Just stay.'
Paul: Completely different than that other person.
Kristine: So we moved into the apartment and we lived there for the rest of the war until the Warsaw uprising. But that's a whole other story. But the thing about the woman who wouldn't let, who didn't want us to stay who was horrible and terrified who was my step-fathers aunt - after the war was over my step-father sent her money every month to support her. She was an old lady at that point. And then we went to Warsaw after my mother died in 1972 and we went to visit her. And I was really, it's funny. I was very upset and I just basically isolated myself from everybody and I didn't talk to anybody. And my step-father kept saying, 'What's the matter with you, why aren't you friendly, what's going on, what's wrong?' And I didn't want to say anything - this was the woman who was going to turn us out so we could get killed. So I never, I didn't know if he knew, I figured my mother should have told him. I didn't want to be the one to tell him, certainly not when we were visiting her. But there was another relative of theirs who was a really nice woman that we stayed with, I mean after the war. There was another, who had survived and I told her about how upset I was about having to go visit this aunt of my step-father's. And she said “well you know, you're not the only one. She did the same, she turned her brother out and he got picked up two hours later and killed.'
Paul: Oh my God.
Kristine: So she said, 'you're not the only one she wouldn't take in.' But -
Paul: Imagine how that woman had to have shut down emotionally the rest of her life to live with herself.
Kristine: I know. And every month for ten years, twenty years, my step-father was sending her money. She was his relative. But any how so we, but my uncle stayed because he felt he was safe because he had this job. Well, things got so lawless inside the ghetto, this was October of forty-three, things got so lawless inside the ghetto that the Germans were just shooting people on sight. They didn't care. They didn't take time to ask you to show them your documents. So, whatever the authority was decided that there was people that they needed like my uncle who had a job of unloading the trains with the food supplies for the Germans. So the people who absolutely had an iron clad reason to be there were wearing numbers, large metal things on a metal chain on their necks so they would be immediately identifiably. And we used to, my mother had a set up with my uncle where she would to talk to him on the phone. And then there was a bombed out building on the ghetto side that you could go upstairs in. And there was a building on the Aryan side where you could see that building from. And she would set up a time with him and we would go up the building and look out a window in the hallway and he would go into the opposite building so we could see him. So that way she could see that he was still alive. And I remember he was just really emaciated and he had this metal number on his neck. Well in February of forty-four, he came out through the sewers and joined us. And then the uprising was in April. And that was just a group of people who basically knew they were committing suicide but rather than getting killed they were going to do it that way. So that was, and then the ghetto was burned to the ground and that was the end of the Warsaw ghetto.
So then we lived in Warsaw in that apartment. The woman who owned the apartment came out of the ghetto with her husband and her mother-in-law. So at that point there were six of us in the apartment. And when she first came out of course she wanted us to leave because she wanted just a two bedroom apartment I guess. And oh the room was rented to a guy who worked for the underground who was not a Jew. Who my mother became friendly with. And then my mother and this woman her old friend started with having a, kind of a, slightly adversary situation because she wanted my mother to leave, my mother didn't want to leave, she was friendly with the guy who was living there, he knew they were Jewish. He started bringing in arms and underground papers to keep in the apartment. He kept saying, 'what do you people care? If they catch you, you're dead anyway. So it doesn't matter if they catch you with arms -
Paul: Why they catch you, right.
Kristine: Except they felt it was sending a – so my mother began to work for the underground and she was working as a courier.
Paul: That's one of the things they mentioned on this documentary last night, is how the women and the children would be couriers for the resistance.
Kristine: Yeah. So my mother worked for the - that was for the Polish underground. Except the Polish underground was quite anti-Semitic.
Kristine: Oh yeah. So they didn't know she was Jewish when she was working – I mean this guy knew bout the other people didn't know. But we needed papers and they were very expensive to come by. And my mother always had to do things in ways that didn't involve money because we didn't have the money. So she told the underground that her husband was a prisoner of war who had escaped and the Germans were looking for us. Looking for him and therefore looking for us. And they gave her a set of false papers with a different name on it. The ghetto uprising was in April and that was it. The ghetto was gone, everybody was gone. It was all over except for the people who made it through. There were a couple of other weird things which is that the Germans decided at one point that all the Jews they didn't get they weren't going to get because they were so well hidden. Or somehow small. They got everybody that was gettable and that was it. So they made one last attempt. They made an announcement that they understood that that was the case and therefore these people were safe. And therefore if you paid some large some of money and appeared at a certain place you would be taken to Cyprus and you could live in Cyprus. You were going to survive. Anyway they just didn't want them in Poland. Nobody trusted that and first a few people went and then they sent letters back from Cyprus – yes indeed we're in Cyprus and everything is wonderful and everything is fine. And my uncle who was always, I mean there he was. He was a young man, he was totally confined and he wanted to go. Didn't have the money. There was no way he could make it go. He really suffered, he really wanted to figure out some way he could go. It was called the Polish hotel, and that's, it's called the Polish hotel affair where all these people were supposed to go to this hotel and the Germans would pick them up, put them on a plane and send them off to Cyprus. Well that first group went to Cyprus, that was the last that went to Cyprus.
Paul: Ah the rest were killed.
Kristine: Nobody ever heard from the rest of the people. They just wanted to pull out some of the monies that they knew these people had to have in order to maintain themselves. After my mother got her papers from the underground and was in a real tension with the woman who owned the apartment and moving out - The Germans had declared that there had to be a certain number of people registered per apartment otherwise they would assign people. At that point my mother was a godsend to this woman because she and I could be registered to the apartment because we now had these fake papers. Otherwise they would have assigned somebody to the apartment and she would have been done in. So everything was fine and we all stayed in the apartment. But the way that they supported themselves is that the husband and the mother-in-law and my uncle baked pastries at night. Because the whole ideas was that they should sleep during the say so they wouldn’t be seen moving around the apartment. So they were up all night baking pastries. In the morning on her way to work my mother would deliver them to restaurants. And they would buy the ingredients on the black market. And the only problem was that gas was rationed. So they had to turn off the gas meter in the apartment so there was always the thing of, 'the gas meter guy is coming. Is the meter back on or isn't it on.' And they had a little hiding place in the apartment where people who get squashed in if they thought someone was coming. What the Germans did is - Did you see The Pianist?
Paul: Uh hum. Great movie.
Kristine: Okay, yeah. That was very similar. That was kind of my story. He was in Warsaw and I didn't know how clear it is what was going on. The Germans were evacuating the city block by block. And you were supposed to go into this main square and then go to the rail road station and go through a medical exam and be sent to work camps. And then they systematically burned the city block by block. As soon as the block was supposed to be evacuated they would set it on fire. In that movie I didn't think it was clear because there were all these fire bombing going on. Well that what it was, they were just burning the city. It wasn't like a war or anything. But we couldn't go through a medical because of my uncle. We couldn't go to the rail road station with him. So we meandered around the city trying to figure out what to do. And by that point things were really different because the Germans that were there were not the SS. They were the Verma. It was the front. Because the front was right there. The Russians were across the river. The front was moving. The whole thing about the uprising was that the Poles thought that Russians were coming. They were right across the river, Warsaw was on the river, it was like they were in New Jersey and we were in New York. So the Polish underground wanted to have the political plum of being able to hand over a liberated city to the Russians and meet them as equals and not have the Russians liberate them. And that's what the uprising was all about. In the meantime the Russians just sat there and they didn't come across.
Paul: Yeah the Russians were certainly no friends to the Polish people.
Kristine: Well the Polish underground was a very reactionary underground. There was also a communist underground but by that time that was pretty well wiped out with the help of the other Polish underground and a lot of them had gone over to the Russian side anyway. So there were two underground movements and the communist one was weak and pretty much gone. When they saw that the other Polish underground was not their friends they went to the - a lot of them joined partisans in the woods. The thing went on for like two months and we happened to live, and the building we lived in was a very massive building that belong to the Bayer aspirin company. It was a German building, there were a lot of Germans in the building. And we were one of the few apartments that we had that was Poles because she had had this apartment for a long time. And in the basement, there was like a three story basement which was a furniture company. Kept it for a storehouse. So it was like the perfect shelter. A lot of people just moved into the basement and lived there for like these two months. And it was a whole other piece of it. But my uncle, at one point the Germans declared an armistice and said they understood that it was that the population was trapped here and they weren't necessarily wanting to fight the Germans. So they would call an armistice and people could leave the city. So again, some people said 'no, we don't trust, we're not going to do it, it's a trap.' Other people said 'come on, let's get out of here.' So my uncle was with the ones who was either going to go, or wanted to - went outside to see what was going on, and there was - the house started being bombed and he got a shrapnel in his leg. So he was laid up. At one point that whole building was like, there was like street fighting and it changed from street to street and at one point the whole building was like just an island among the Germans. Where upon a lot people left, went through the sewers and various things and went to the other side of the city cause it was being shelled. At which point the Germans stopped shelling this because we were just left with half a block or something and shelled the other side and the people tried to get back. But we couldn't leave because my uncle couldn’t walk. So we stayed there. So when it was all over and they were evacuating the army, the Polish army capitulated, and the city was being evacuated and systematically burned and we started wandering around the city and because the Germans were military they really, you know, they were as confused by what was going on as the population. And the woman who had that apartment was educated in Germany and spoke fluid German – I'll just give you, this is going on too long I'll give you one other interesting incident.
My uncle started talking to a couple of German soldiers and found, and he had a camera. And he said, 'I'll give you this camera if you would escort us out of the city.' So that we could leave the checkpoint of the city with a German escort. So they said sure. So he gave them a watch and he gave them a camera. And we found some guy who had a wagon because he had come to evacuate his family. He was a volksdeutsche. You could declare yourself of German ancestry and then you had special privileges and you were called a volksdeutsche. So he was volksdeutsche and he had all these papers but he couldn't find anybody. The whole city was in an uproar. People were just wandering around. He couldn't find anybody of his family but he had a pass for taking six people out of the city. So he started selling that. My mother met this woman who had a bunch of money and she had just had a dog who had puppies and people were eating dogs and she was trying to protect her dog with puppies so she got on the wagon with her dog and the puppies and they put me on the wagon. And she was scared to be alone with my mother so we'll come with you but you have to pay for all this. So she did. And the old mother-in-law who only spoke Yiddish went on and told everybody that she was deaf and dumb and not to try to talk to her, she can't talk. And they put us on the wagon because it didn't fit all the people, there were already two more people than he had a pass for and they said you just take these people and some of our stuff and we'll walk behind you. It turned out there was more check points afterward, it wasn't just that check point getting out of the city. And when this guy realized that he got a little panicked. That he had all these people that he didn't have permits for. So he just whipped up the horses and took off. And I was on the wagon and this old lady was on the wagon and this other woman. And I see my mother and my uncle and this other woman just getting smaller in the distance and we're taking off. And we come to another check point and at this check point they said to the guy, 'didn't you leave some people behind you? Aren't there more people coming?' And he said, yes. He said, 'well you're to wait here till they arrive.' And he thought that was it. He was dead. So they arrived and the German at the checkpoint said, 'Ok are these the people that are with you? You can go now.' And he no idea what happened. So as soon as we got out of sight of this check point he said 'all right everybody out, I'm not taking you any further.' And just dropped us off on the side of the road. What had apparently happened was when they saw the wagon disappearing in the distance with me and other people on it, there was a German's officers car went by. And this woman who spoke German flagged him down. And said, 'we're leaving the city and this guy took off with my friend's child and all this. And I'm German and he's not, we had a contract with him and he's not doing it.' So he said 'you're German?' And she showed him letters, she had a brother in Germany who actually was at that point was at a concentration camp. She showed him letters addressed to her from Germany and she spoke perfect German. And she said, 'yeah I'm German but he's got all my documents on the wagon. And everything is there, and you have to help me.' And he said, ' All right I'm going down there, I'll take care of it.'
Paul: It's amazing time after time after time.
Kristine: I know. You know, when people say well it's an amazing combination of coincidences and then I think to myself, yeah the people who didn't have an amazing continuation of coincidences aren't here.
Kristine: It's like a selection process. They're not here. But then again there this other side of it. Like I was saying, the people who are sure everything is going to work out ok in some mystic way. And if you read about people like Napoleon or Churchill or DeGalle they too, there's this constant thing that when they do these things that go out on a limb with a sense that everything's going to work out. So sometimes I think there may be some kind of pre-cognition. You know?
Paul: Do you think that's a part that most people have in them, or is she just genetically born to be able to be a survivor like that. Because time after time after time you were faced with imminent death and your mother just a bolt of lighting hit her and she just -
Kristine: That's right. Well, It's a certain kind of self-assurance. My mother was held back. She wanted to take over her fathers business before the war. He felt it wasn't appropriate. He wanted to be X and Son, right? She wanted to go to law school, they wouldn't let her. So she went and took a secretarial or an accountants course. And she wanted to marry somebody, they wouldn't let her marry, so she married somebody else – it was my father – and the marriage didn't work out. And in some way I always think the war years was my mother at her most energetic. I hate to say happy because it's not right. She was very concerned about her parents. What she did is she worked very hard, to get... she decided that the reason that her parents wouldn't leave where they were was because of all their possessions. The linens and the silverware and all that. So she got permits to bring all that to Warsaw. And actually it all arrived in the ghetto and sat in big crates. I don't know what happened to it. And she figured if only she could get their possessions there, they wouldn't felt like they had to stay there. It just never happened. But in order to do that she had to go to the Gestapo and get all these papers and everybody always said - so she would just walk in there and she'd be charming. At one point she had a string of pearls she was playing with, I remember this because she always was very amused - and it broke and they fell all over the floor. So she had all these German officers down on their hands and knees trying to pick up the beads that had broken. She was twenty-nine, she was very charming.
Paul: Was, is she physically attractive?
Kristine: Yeah she was very attractive.
Paul: She sounds so self-assured.
Kristine: She kind of, she looked a little like Ingrid Bergman. She had that kind of a -
Paul: Is it fair to say that during the war years your mother's best qualities were brought out?
Kristine: I think so. But what I have to tell you which is very sad, that when we came here -
Paul: To the United States.
Kristine: To the United States. Which she didn't want to go, very much, because she had a good job after the war. She had married my step-father just a year before the war, he was a difficult person and she hadn't seen him for seven years. So she was twenty-nine when he left, she was thirty-six when she saw him again. And I felt guilty about it because everybody said to her when she said she didn't want to go, they said 'your daughter, you have an opportunity to give her a life in the United States and you're not going to do it? That's terrible. And then if you don't like it you can always come back.' She always said that she wanted to come back but she never did. That first year when we lived in New-York city and my step-father was working somewhere in the an engineer and not making very much money. Housing was really hard at that point, we lived in one of those transient hotels. It was all horrible. And she got very depressed and quite sick. And she was probably sick for a whole year. I think she had, she was anemic. And there I was used to this energetic mother and she was just, she had just collapsed.
Paul: Did she ever seem as alive post war as she did when you were scrambling for survival?
Kristine: I don't know. I'm going to ask the kids of what their memories of her were. Because then I got, the thing about my mother - then I went and I got my degree and I took the kids cross country. And it seemed to me that my mother was always worried about me. That what I was doing was crazy, what I was doing wasn't going to work out. And I used to say about my mother is my mother thinks that I'm able to do anything that I want and she'll do her damnest to try and stop me.
Paul: Explain that a little bit.
Kristine: Well that she had a lot of faith in my abilities and my energy and all that, but it worried her so much that she would rather I didn't do it. Whatever it was. And one time I remember saying to her, she was saying, 'you know you're just too intelligent. And you want to do these things because you think you can. But they're really dangerous, or you shouldn't be doing them, or whatever. It won't work out.' And finally I said, 'You know if I was retarded I could be in an institution. And everything would be taken care of. It used to make her so mad when I said that but that was always my answer. Well, if I was retarded you could have me institutionalized and then I would be totally safe and taken care of and you wouldn't have a thing to worry about.
Paul: And I'm sure that made her happy when you said that. Do you ever experience survivor guilt?
Kristine: Not in that way. I always felt, and maybe this is, I'm not sure this is what you're getting at. That when a person, if you, there's some example that I had. I don't remember. But if you meet somebody who says 'wow this is terrible, you're about to be killed. I'm going to go with you and if you're going to die I'm going to die too.' That's not the person I want to be with. I want to be with the person who says 'I'm going to get you out of here.' In a way, I feel sad that there are people that I wish that were here that they're not here. But I'm sad for me, you know? Because I'd like to have them here. And I think, gee If my grandparents had lived and they really loved me and all my childhood nice memories are with my grandparents and all this. What would they have done for me. But in that way I almost don't understand the term because I would only feel guilt if I did something wrong.
Paul: Right. Yeah, I think too being a child you didn't really have anything to feel -
Kristine: No power.
Paul: - to feel guilty about other than the fact that you survived and other people didn't. Which is certainly nothing to feel guilty about but for some reason people that have been through stuff like that or war, or soldiers experience it a lot or people who are in air disasters.
Kristine: I guess what I mean by that example is that I don't feel bad that I didn't join them. I feel bad that they didn't -
Paul: Which makes sense to me. That seems healthy.
Kristine: But I didn't, it's not like, you know. I feel badly about my mother that she kind of – I thought when she died, and she was fairly, well I didn't know she was young at the time. Now it seems like she was young, she was like sixty-two. That I always felt that she hadn't, she didn't have the good life yet that she should have had at the end. But then maybe she did. I bought a house in New Hampshire with a hundred acres of land that I loved. And I, in sixty-five, and I used to go and stay there. And my mother couldn't understand, that they were city people. And you know being in the country was like going back to something that she got away from, right? And they couldn't imagine living anywhere but New York City. Cause that was like the height of the good life. And she came to visit me and she said, 'how can you' - I was there by myself - she said, 'how can you stand being here? You don't see another house and no people and it's so lonely.' And I said, look but look I can look out the window, and as far' - the house was in the middle of a hundred acres of land - 'as far as the eye can see it's all mine. And she said 'well I have the same thing in my apartment.' And it made me think that she really, you know, was happy with what she had. Which to me seemed inadequate in some ways. So. I don't know.
I went to visit my parents, no we away went on vacation. My husband, my first husband and I and our two children which must have been like four and six or something at the time. And my parents came, my mother and my step-father this was in the United States. And my parents came, I think we were in Saratoga. And they were going to take them to New York and give us a real vacation. And my step-father was going to drive and at that time there were no seat belts and nobody worried about stuff like that. But anyway, the kids were in the back seat and they drove off. And I started to get terribly worried, that something.... that there was going to be a car accident. Meantime we were sharing this vacation with another couple and everybody was all excited and now the kids were gone. We were going to the movies, and we were going to go dancing and whatever we were going to do. And I went into a thing that was very similar to the thing with my mother of saying, there's going to be an accident. I'm going to get the news that there was an accident and the kids were killed. And while everybody was, and I couldn't go anywhere. I was like paralyzed and I couldn't tell anybody what was going on with me. So, I finally said to everybody, 'look why don't you just go to the movies. I think I'm coming down with the flu. I'm feeling really sick and I gotta go to bed. And I tried to go through my rehearsal, of now you get the news - and I couldn’t do it. Couldn't be done. That was not something I could deal with or wanted to go through. And so I just said, Ok I'm sick I'm going to bed. And I went to bed until my parents called and said they were home and everything was fine.
Kristine: So, it was an interesting experience for me because I had always done this. Actually, my husband at the time used to work in New York once a week and I used to drive him to the airport. And I would do the same thing when I took him to the airport. I would go home and say Ok now you get the phone call, the plane crashed and he's dead. What do you do? Well I'll get these documents, and I'll have to tell the kids in this way and I'll do this or that. And I could do that fine. And it was very assuring for me to know that I'm going to go through the steps. That's how I'm going to handle it. But when it came to the kid thing I realized I couldn't handle it. There was no way I could make myself feel better. It was good, I liked it. Because it meant that there were some things that were not, that my survival didn't count more than those things. So that was just a, that was one of my interesting things.
Paul: So I would imagine having been through what you've been through and especially at such an early age, you know everybody has coping mechanisms for how they deal with things and obviously you've just shared one with us.
Kristine: I wanted to show you how it works and then it doesn't work.
Paul: Right. What are some other instances where you feel like what you went through informed how you dealt with stuff later in life. Or didn't deal with things. Or is that kind of the biggest one that stands out to you.
Kristine: Yeah I don't know. I think that, once many years ago we had a friend who was a psychiatrist and who specialized in, I think it was actually the person I was talking to might have been Robert Lipton. I'm not sure. There's a guy who does a lot of writing about survival and Holocaust survivors and other survivors. And actually at that time I think it must have been because, we lived in Cambridge and someone asked me to do a bunch of translations. Of testimonies they had taken from children who had survived concentration camps. And the testimonies were in Polish. And they asked me to do the translations. And I started doing that and they were pretty horrible stories. Just real horror stories of these kids. And at that point my children were in school and they could read. I was terrified of their finding those translations. I didn't want them to read that. I would type it up during the day and then I would hide it. And finally I told them I didn't want to do this anymore because it was too depressing. Some time at that point somebody talked to me about you know those experiences and stuff and they said to me: 'you know you're living as if you’re still in the ghetto.' And I was terribly insulted. Because I was in graduate school, I was teaching, I had two kids, and I had a house, and I thought I was living really well and had a very happy life. But for some reason that stuck with me and every time when I think I should have done more or did things or did something and that I still have a sense that what's most important is survival. And that I look at things that I do, I'm very good at handling crises. And the more threatening they are, the more they energize me. And that if I wasn't, if it wasn't for that, I have a lot of friends who think I look for crisis situations. So that I can deal with them. And that if I didn't do that, then maybe there'd be other things I'd be doing that would be more advantageous to me than trying to avoid disaster. So, because whenever somebody says to me 'gee what are you going to do now, this terrible thing is happening?' I have no problem with dealing with that.
Paul: Do you feel that you go to an intellectual place in your brain that is kind of logical and there's a re-assurance and a soothing quality to that? Or is it just that you block out the emotion by focusing on the logic?
Kristine: Well it's not so much logic, it's just basically....yeah I guess it's logic. It's figuring out, ok what to do, how to get around this, how to solve this problem and how not to get derailed by worrying about it. You know, it's like when my daughter had what sounded like a very threatening illness and my sense was well, you don't focus on how threatening it, is what could happen that's bad. You try to figure out how to deal with it so maybe it will turn out ok.
Paul: Yeah that sounds perfectly healthy to me. That sounds super healthy.
Kristine: Yeah but I don't know when it's not a life and death situation whether I lose some energy and don't follow through the way I might have if it was more threatening.
Kristine: Yeah. I don't know.
Paul: Jeff what do you think?
Jeff: It sometimes seems too simple to do the life thing whereas the crisis is you know – ok, I've been put on a mission and I can problem solve and I know how to hyper focus on that. I feel like that's something I've gotten from my mother's genes.
Kristine: Yeah my daughter is quite involved too in holocaust survivors' kids and children of holocaust survivors and she feels that a lot of her life has also been circumscribed somewhat by being a child of a holocaust survivor. And I always felt I tried to protect the kids from all these experiences. When I was teaching I had a seminar at one point -
Paul: What were you teaching?
Kristine: I was teaching Sociology at Brandeis. And at one point somehow I got involved in doing a seminar for children of holocaust survivors. And this was a thing that I thought was kind of interesting - they either liked their parents very much or didn't. And it seemed to me that the parents divided into victims and survivors. And that there were the parents who told their kids about all the stories about how clever they were about getting out of situations and how they managed to survive. And the kids were very fond of those parents. Then there were the other parents who impressed upon the kids how victimized they had been and what terrible things had happened to them. And the kids were not all that sympathetic to those parents. Now there tended to be a sex difference. That is the women more tended to present themselves as victims. And the men, the fathers were more likely to present themselves as survivors. But that victim versus survivor situation, it seems like the kids whose parents present themselves as survivors had more of what Jeff was talking about. An energy toward problem solving.
Paul: Can you talk about how you free yourself from the past, if at all?
Kristine: Well I used to do it very much by avoidance. I never went to movies about the war. I didn't read stuff about the war. I didn't really want to be presented with it. And part of it had to do with, this is another kind of seminal event. When I first came to this country, I went to eighth grade in New York city. Some kids starting asking, it was 1946 and there were a lot of refugees. And some kids in school started asking me about things and I started telling them a little bit about some version of what I had been through. What it was like. And a little girl jumped up and said 'Don't believe a word she says. My father says all these refugees they just come here they tell you this terrible story so you feel sorry for them and they lie.'
Paul: Oh my God.
Kristine: And that shut me right up. And at that point I made a decision that when you come out of an insane asylum, you don't tell people that you came out of an insane asylum and you don't describe what happened in the insane asylum. You pretend that you’ve always been normal. And that life has always been normal for you. And that was kind of a defining decision at that point of how I was going to act.
Paul: But that couldn't have been a healthy choice, could it? I mean I suppose -
Kristine: Well that's what I'm asking.
Paul: I suppose for a seven or eight year old...
Kristine: I was twelve.
Paul: Or twelve. Oh boy that's a hard one because people need to open up about their pain for it not to -
Kristine: Ok I had another, there was another piece to that decision. And that I only recently realized was not reasonable but very helpful. I thought, gee I'm really so glad they don't believe it. Because if they don't believe it, that means that they can't think it can happen, that things like that happen. They're incapable of making things like that happen. And as they grow older they will not allow things like that to happen because it's beyond their comprehension. And I thought that was a very positive thing about the world
Paul: Wow. Yeah. Wow. See, that's one of the things why I wanted to have you on as a guest is because until you've lived something like you have, somebody like me can never picture the places that you go to in your brain. And it fascinates me how things like worrying about your very survival on a daily basis what areas of your soul you’re forced to kind of access in your brain.
Kristine: Well there's one thing that I think a lot of the survivors share and that also always fascinated me because I see it in fiction and things. For most people who survive there's some intuition or a sense that yes, they're going to make it. They almost don't question. And I thought for me it had to do with the fact that I was with my mother all the time. I was not a kid who off by themselves. So I was with my mother and she was very clever and very energetic and there was a sense that whatever happens she would take care of me.
Paul: One of the things that Jeff told me about you is that you have done some activism for peace causes. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Kristine: My activism was more in the women's movement. I came out of a situation where I felt women were very active, very important, and very important to survival. And my expectations of myself, but some if it was just European. I came here and it seemed the fifties were incredibly backward when it came to dealing with women. So there was kind of, it was kind of a self assertion. So I really can't, I don't know. It seems like so much a part of me. It's very hard to analyze, it seems inconceivable to have done anything else.
Paul: Anything else. That's how I feel about rights for gays right now. How can, it's inconceivable to me that anybody would want to deny two people that are in love the ability to live legally together. And not only to be against it is inconceivable to me, but to go out of your way with all this shit you have to do during your day, to waste time denying other people happiness is just inconceivable to me.
Kristine: Yeah, that whole thing is, it's a kind of an insanity. And I wonder at what point- you know the only thing that scares me with what's going on now is that I look at it and I say how could we possibility elect any of these idiots. And how could they possibility, you know have all this... the arguments for it and saying, get the government out of our lives but make sure the government doesn't let you get married. And all that other stuff. But then I think that must have been going on when Hitler was coming into power. There must have been all these people, not only that but he wrote a book Mein Kampf and he said exactly what he was going to do. And people just didn't believe it or thought it was inconceivable, or thought it didn't make sense. And there he was and he got into power. Of course it's different now. But the other thing that really gets me is that if we had the forms of communication, I've been saying this to Jeff, that we have now: internet, cell phones, photographs on your phone and all that I don't think the holocaust could have happened. And that to me, that's the one thing that just gives me chills. That it's that simple. Or not simple. A few years of technology and I don’t think any of that would have happened. My grandparents would have been alive. My friends would have been alive. And the world would have been all different because of that -
Paul: The resistance could have organized better and put up a fight.
Kristine: I think people would have known what was going on. They couldn't even have pretended that they didn't know. There was such an interwoven society in terms of who got done in and everything that I don't think it could have happened on that scale. This is a quote from Marshal McLuhan saying that “any act of violence is an attempt to define your identity.” And that really struck me. That's very powerful.
Paul: And to protect your ego. Because ultimately violence is almost always born out of ego.
Kristine: The guy who attacks somebody, a gay in the bar, is trying to prove to everybody that he's not gay.
Kristine: So that it always kind of has to do with your identity, by saying I'm not them. I'm not this, I'm not this.
Paul: I'm either trying to be something or not be something. That makes perfect sense to me. Well Kristine I want to thank you so much. Is there anything that, as we wrap up, that you'd like to say to somebody out there who's stuck, who's struggling, who feels stuck in their head, or hopeless and doesn't know what to do.
Kristine: Well you know I guess it's very simple. Like what I was saying before about the energy for life. That I feel often when I see people like that and I'm saying, hey don't you realize that you're alive? And that you have, you can do things? And that there are millions of people who, they had nothing but just life. They could have done things. They would have been happy. That's all they wanted. And you have that and yet because you have a life but you know, X or Y happened or you don't have this or you don't have that – is that enough to just completely fold up? I don't know what would give you that sense of value of just being alive and being here and being able to look out or relate to people. Or do whatever.
Paul: That to me is one of the most mysterious things about life is where does that come from? And is that just a gift from the universe? Is that something we can cultivate? I don't know the answer to that. But I know when we have those moments when we feel it inside ourselves that is something to be grateful about and to not take for granted.
Kristine: So as long as you have that spark of life in you, you should be ok.
Paul: I want to thank you so much for opening up and talking about stuff that I know - some of it was not easy to go back and to think about or talk about. But I appreciate it and I know my listeners appreciate it. And I want to thank you for raising a great son who's been a good friend to me and somebody who has a really has a great beautiful energy about him.
Kristine: I don't know how much credit I can take for it. But I love him too.
Paul: Thanks Kristine. Many thanks to Kristine Keese and Jeff Rosenthal and all you guys for listening and the people that help make this show possible and those who support it. You can always make a financial contribution by going to the website and you can support it non-financially by going to Itunes and giving us a good rating. Enough out of me. If you're out there and you're feeling stuck there is hope. Do not give up. You are not alone. Thanks for listening.