EPISODE 3 (1939-1945)

During the Soviet occupation in Boryslav

Now Hilde Berger was in Poland, in freedom. She wanted to travel from Poland to a safe foreign country. But everything turned out differently. In Gdynia (Gdingen) she first tried to get a passport with the help of the Jewish community centre. When she found out that she could also get the passport in Galicia, she went to Boryslaw to visit her parents and her elder sister, whom she had not seen for more than two years. She lived with her parents at 26 Lukasiewicza Street in Boryslaw. In Drohobycz she applied for a residence permit and a passport, but waited in vain for weeks.

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Through cousins she came into contact with the illegal communist group in Boryslaw – she was introduced as „Berlinka“ [Berlin woman] who had been in prison in Germany. At meetings she was asked how it was possible for the National Socialists to come to power in Germany, the country with the strongest labour movement. Hilde criticised the Social Democrats, but also the policies of the Communists, who saw the greatest enemy in the „social fascists“ (meaning the Social Democrats). She was therefore insulted as a „deviant“. A short time later the German-Russian non-aggression pact was announced. While the communist group in Boryslaw defended Stalin’s alleged peace policy, Hilde criticised Russian support for Hitler’s war effort – she was alone in her criticism. But Hilde instinctively concealed her membership in the Trotskyist opposition – fortunately for her.

At the beginning of September 1939 it was too late to leave: German troops occupied Galicia, before withdrawing a few days later and Russian troops invaded. The local communists welcomed the Red Army enthusiastically with a demonstration, songs, banners and flowers. But the enthusiasm quickly gave way to great disillusionment for many: „Life under Russian occupation was hard and bleak. A strict work discipline was introduced. If a worker was three times late, he was fired. At works meetings, workers demanded better working clothes and more humane working conditions, but the worker they had chosen as spokesman was arrested and never seen again. Soon nobody dared to raise such elementary issues, which in capitalist countries were part of the normal demands of the trade unions and were considered legitimate reasons for strikes. The engineers from Baku brought their families. The Russians were amazed at the ‚high‘ standard of living of Polish workers. When they came to their houses, they thought they were ‚bourgeois‘. Even some of the local communists were soon disappointed by the low standard of the Russians.“ (Hilde Berger’s life story, in: Hesse, p. 38)

To get food vouchers, at least one member of a family had to work. The communist Rattner as the assistant to the Russian city commander was responsible for allocating the work. Rattner had previously led the communist group in Boryslav and regarded Hilde as an enemy: „Rattner also distributed the work to me. He … chose a job for me as a mechanic’s assistant, which I had to accept. To get to my place of work, I had to walk up a hill for almost five kilometres. Every three weeks I had to work at night. At first my Polish and Ukrainian colleagues suspected I was a Russian informer, but after a few months they trusted me and accepted me.“ (Life story, in: Hesse, p. 37f.)

Hilde Berger had grown up with German as her mother tongue, although her parents had come from the then Polish Galicia. Her mother was fluent in Polish, but her father could only speak a few words and no Polish was spoken at home. Hilde had learned English and French at school and in courses, so that she could correspond in these languages. But she could not speak Polish, Russian or Ukrainian. So while working, she learned Ukrainian with the help of a dictionary and a writing pad and by talking to her colleagues.

When the Germans attacked Russia in June 1941, all those who were communists or were suspected of being communists ran off with the Russians … The Russians did not defend themselves. They left very quickly. But there were not enough trains and wagons. For the Russians and their families, yes, but the people from the East [i.e. eastern Poland] had to wait until new ones arrived. My friend asked me to leave too. He said: ‚You must not stay with the Nazis. They will kill you.‘ Everyone went to Russia, including my friend. I said: ‚I am not going to Russia. I think it’s safer for me with the Germans.‘“ (Hilde Berger, interview, in: Hesse, p. 129). For Hilde Berger Russia was a huge prison, which would have meant certain death for her as a Trotskyist. She could not imagine at that time that the Germans would kill six million people just because they were Jews.

The beginning of the German occupation

Before the Soviet functionaries and Russians left Boryslav in great haste, they had murdered all the prisoners in the NKVD prison – some of them apparently tortured beforehand. Incited by the rumour „This is the work of Jewish Bolshevism“, Ukrainians perpetrated a two-day pogrom on the Jews in Boryslav. 193 Jews were buried in the Jewish cemetery; the number of victims was certainly even greater. Hilde Berger was asked by one of her cousins to help her search for her missing husband – they found him among the heaps of mutilated corpses.

The Wehrmacht set up a „Judenrat“ shortly afterwards. The tasks of the Judenrat were to carry out German orders, above all to provide manpower, collect contributions, provide the Jewish population with self-catering and set up a Jewish public order corps. The chairman of the Judenrat, the lawyer Michael Herz, came to Hilde Berger one day. Someone had denounced Hilde in an anonymous postcard that she had been in prison in Germany for political activity. But the postcard did not reach the head of the Schutzpolizei because a policeman had embezzled the postcard in order to extort hush money from the Judenrat. The Judenrat then actually paid him a reward.

Immediately after the occupation of Galicia, all companies were to stop employing Jews on a permanent basis, which soon proved to be unfeasible. The forced labour for Jews already in force in the other districts of the Generalgouvernement was also introduced in the new district of Galicia. Officially, the newly established German labour offices had a monopoly on the allocation of labour – but in reality the Wehrmacht, Gestapo, Ukrainian city councils and other agencies used Jewish labour arbitrarily and without remuneration.

Sick, old or out of work: they wer always threatened with death. At the end of November, the Judenrat was supposed to draw up a list of the sick and unfit for work: according to this list, around 700 Jews were arrested in the so-called „Invalidenaktion“ on 28.11.1941 and shot the next day in the forests of Truskawiec and Tustanowice by police men (Gestapo, Schutzpolizei, Ukrainian police). Hilde Berger was therefore glad to get a job as a typist at the Judenrat Boryslaw with low pay. Her parents were penniless and without income, so she could at least make a small contribution to alleviating the family’s greatest need. The Judenrat occasionally „loaned“ her to the Labour Office, where she became known as an able stenotypist with German as her mother tongue. On 24.2.1942, Junge, director of the Drohobycz group administration of the Beskid Oil Company, wrote to the county captain Drohobycz, SS-Sturmbannführer Eduard Jedamzik, a request for the „employment of the Jewish Hilde Berger“: „The expansion of our company requires the employment of further Reich German workers, especially stenotypists … The local employment office is not in a position to provide us with suitable workers for the transitional period. Only the Jewish Hilde Berger, born on 13.6.1914 in Berlin, was recommended to us as a stenotypist … We ask you to issue a permit to move from Boryslaw to Drohobycz„. On 3.3.1942 the head of the Drohobycz Employment Office, Hellmut Bräunlich, ordered that Hilde Berger should work for the Beskid Oil Company in Drohobycz. „I had made the company aware that I could only employ Jewish women. However, the company is so short of manpower that it has to accept the disadvantage of a Jewish worker„. Hilde Berger, however, had to move from Boryslaw to Drohobycz to work in the administration of the oil company and had to part with a heavy heart from her parents and sister. On the other hand, she looked forward to meeting Jewish intellectuals in Drohobycz with whom she could discuss art and literature. She was most deeply impressed by the painter and writer Bruno Schulz, who was able to speak so knowledgeably about his favourite writer Franz Kafka, about Thomas Mann and other German writers. This was a small ray of hope in these dismal times, in which she lived in the Jewish residential district, marked with the Star of David, disenfranchised, endangered, under the most primitive living conditions.

She often had to go to a German’s office to sort files or take dictation. She tried to do this as much as possible during the time when news was broadcast on the radio. That way she learned what was happening in the world and what the war situation was like.

However, a new danger soon threatened her: Director Junge had assured her, when applying for her job, that „we will employ a Jewish worker only as long as it is necessary and until we have found suitable replacements.“ (Letter of 24.2.1942). There were signs that Junge wanted to get rid of her now.

Under the protection of Berthold Beitz

On 6.8.1942 early in the morning a large group of policemen attacked Boryslaw. They were led by an SS command from Lemberg under SS-Obersturmführer Robert Gschwendtner – the Drohobycz Security Police under Hans Block, the Drohobycz Troop Police (Reserve Police Battalion 133) under Ernst Lederer, the Boryslaw and Drohobycz Protection Police and Ukrainian police units were involved. Since word had got around that the police had deported around four to six thousand Jews in Sambor, Turka and the surrounding area to an unknown location the day before, many Jews in Boryslaw had fled or gone into hiding before. As a result, the action in Boryslaw was stopped for appearance’s sake and the action in Drohobycz was carried out. The Drohobycz ghetto („Lan“) was surrounded and around 5,000 Jews were driven to the collection point at the railway station. In the meantime, a large proportion of the Jews who had fled Boryslaw had returned, when the action continued in Boryslaw towards the evening and around 4,000 – 6,000 Jews were arrested and driven to the cattle wagons at the railway station. Hilde Berger, who had been living in Drohobycz for a few months, was very worried about her parents and sister. Accompanied by a German employee of Karpathen-Öl AG, she received a travel permit to Boryslaw. „When I arrived at my parents‘ house, my premonitions were confirmed: The house was empty, the door was locked and a note was written on it that said: „Reichsgut“ [Reich property]. I went to the police and asked for permission to enter the house, but the police officer shouted at me: ‚Don’t think that because you speak German you are better than the other dirty Jews. Next time it’s your turn!‘“ (Hilde Berger’s story, in: Hesse, p. 42).

Hilde Berger then went to Berthold Beitz, who was known to her by name. Berthold Beitz received her with the words that he had already heard about her skills as a secretary and that he could use her in his office. She would then be under his special protection and be safer than in Drohobycz. But first she wanted to know where the transport had gone. Beitz did not know, and even the Jewish Council did not know for sure at that time. Beitz obtained permission for her to enter her parents‘ house. „With great pain I saw everything. My mother must have been preparing the Sabbath meal. Later I heard from neighbours who had gone into hiding that when my father saw what was happening, he put on his prayer shawl and prayed to God. He had told the neighbours that he would not hide because he trusted in God and believed that his family was safe because he had always been God-fearing and law-abiding. Unfortunately God did not help him. I was allowed to take some of my personal belongings with me, then the house was sealed up again.” (Hesse, p. 43). Only months later did she learn that the transports led to the Belzec extermination camp, where all inmates of the train had been gassed.

Some twenty particularly important Jews (e.g. doctors and engineers) were allowed to live in the so-called „White House“, a separate area on the grounds of the forced labour camp instead of the former barracks – the „White House“, however, consisted not of one but of three houses in which the inmates were allowed to sleep in their own rooms and cook their own meals. Hilde Berger and her friend „Cuba“ were also accommodated here, although they were not specialists. They were now better protected, but still not safe. Again and again the Schutzpolizei and the SS carried out raids in the camp. The inmates of the White House informed Beitz of their fears. Beitz therefore agreed with the head of the Schutzpolizei in Boryslaw, Wüpper, that a Schutzpolizist would watch over the White House during actions, so that „no mistakes“ would happen.

Hilde Berger worked as second secretary for Berthold Beitz, who did not want the Jewish employees in his office to wear the armband with the Star of David. SS-Obersturmführer Friedrich Hildebrand was the „Judenreferent“ in the staff of Fritz Katzmann, the SS and police leader of Galicia. In early 1943 Hildebrand appeared unannounced at Beitz’s office, together with another SS officer, in order to control the „Judeneinsatz“ (deployment of Jews). Hildebrand saw the attractive Hilde Berger and asked Beitz if he could go out with her sometime. When Beitz told him that Hilde Berger was a Jew, Hildebrand became angry: he did not know that Jews were also employed in the administration. Hildebrand demanded the immediate dismissal of all Jews. Beitz replied that these accountants and other specialists were irreplaceable for him, especially Hilde Berger as a correspondent and translator. Hildebrand gave in, but ordered Beitz that from now on „all Jews who work for him shall bear the mark„. This saved the lives of Hilde Berger and the other Jewish employees in the administration. For Beitz, this was the first sign that he could influence Hildebrand to a certain extent. But according to Beitz’s will, Hilde Berger soon did not wear an armband any more, because he did not want to see the armband „in his room„. (Quotations from Sandkühler, p. 367). Officially, Hilde Berger was listed in the name lists of Jewish workers and employees of the Carpathian Oil in Boryslaw as a correspondent and stenotypist in the materials management department (list of 24.11.1943, p.14, number 641).

In the summer of 1943 Hilde Berger discovered with horror that she was pregnant. „Because I did not want to give birth to a child under the given circumstances, I decided to have an abortion. We had a doctor in the camp, but no gynaecologist … Unfortunately he did not do a good job, the blood could not be stopped. Cuba was afraid for me, ran to X [with X meaning Beitz] and asked him for help … He made sure that one of his German employees took me in his own car to the hospital in Drohobycz. There I was registered as a German, immediately treated as an emergency and this time the abortion was performed professionally and successfully. In this way, X actually saved my life, and this at a time when hundreds of thousands of Jews were being killed in Poland„. (Hilde Berger’s life story, Hesse, p. 45)

From summer 1943 onwards, more and more forced labour camps for Jews were liquidated: even the work of the Karpathen-Öl AG no longer offered any real security. More and more Jews were therefore looking for a hiding place: either in a Polish or Ukrainian house, or in an earth bunker in the forest. Both required money and provisions. Such hiding places were often discovered or betrayed. The hiding place of Dr. Goldman and other members of the Judenrat was found – Beitz reported to Hilde Berger that the leader of the Schupo, Wüpper, boasted that the hiding place had been discovered and everyone shot on the spot. In autumn 1943 Hilde Berger met a Pole of Hungarian origin, Meszarosz, in the office. It was said that he was a leading member of the Armia Krajowa (the Polish underground army). Meszarosz sensed Hilde’s fear and offered her help. She told him about the plan to build a hiding place, but she had no money. Meszarosz said he knew that she had helped many people for free and now deserved help herself. The next day, against a receipt, he gave her 10,000 zloty, which would date from the Polish government in exile. If she needed more money, he told her to contact him again. Hilde and her friend Cuba could now buy materials and started building a hiding place. But in winter this became more and more difficult and the danger of being discovered increased because of the tracks in the snow. The protective police [Schutzpolizei] and the Ukrainian police systematically searched for hiding places and shot the hiding persons as „partisans“.

Beitz had promised her and other Jews in his office to warn her in time if the still living „Carpathian Jews“ were to be killed. On 4.4.1944, Beitz, as the only manager of the Carpathian Oil, was drafted into the Wehrmacht – probably after a denunciation by another German. It was clear to Hilde Berger that she would have to go into hiding now, but her hiding place was not yet ready.

Boryslaw and Drohobycz were bombed for the first time on 10 April. Four days later, at 5 o’clock in the morning, the camp of Mrasznica was surrounded: under police surveillance, the workers were driven to the railway station and crammed into cattle wagons. It was too late; escape was impossible: two Jews who were trying to escape on their way to the station were shot immediately. In Drohobycz, too, the forced labour camp was surrounded and cleared: on 14.4.1944 the transport with 1,022 Jews from the Boryslaw and Drohobycz camps arrived at Plaszów concentration camp near Krakow. The name of Hilde Berger can be found on page 24 of the access list under number 17

On Schindler’s List

Some prisoners had previously heard that the Carpathian oil workers were to be taken to Jaslo to continue working for this company. In fact, the Carpathian Oil had also drawn up lists of skilled workers for this purpose, in which Hilde Berger was also mentioned. However, these lists were not taken into account during the sudden removal, which also surprised the plant managers in Boryslaw and Drohobycz.

The horror was therefore great when the train journey ended after a day and night without food instead of in Jaslo in a huge camp surrounded by electric fences and watchtowers, the Plaszów concentration camp. It was run by the notorious SS-Untersturmführer Amon Göth, who was called the „Butcher of Plaszow“. In the summer of 1944, the Plaszow camp had the highest number of interned prisoners (20,000 Jews, 5,000 Poles) at about 25,000.

concentration camp Plaszow near Krakow (wikimedia, public domain)

After their arrival, the Jewish prisoners from Boryslaw and Drohobycz had to stand at attention for several hours in a large square. „After many hours an SS man appeared and shouted whether there was anyone among us who could speak German, type and shorthand. Before I could say anything, there was a loud shout: ‚Hilde Berger, she was the secretary of Director [Beitz] in Boryslaw,‘ The SS man asked me to come forward and asked if that was true. Then I should follow him. I entered an office where I saw some Jewish prisoners sitting at tables and working. I was taken to a room where an SS man in uniform was sitting, Hauptscharführer Müller. As Arbeitseinsatzführer he was responsible for distributing the work.“ (Hilde Berger’s life story, Hesse, p. 51)

Müller was an vulgar, uneducated man. He never looked at Hilde and never addressed her by name. Whenever he needed her, he just yelled „typist!“ During dictation she had to stand. Hilde Berger improved his reports because they were full of stylistic and grammatical errors. She was afraid of being blamed for the mistakes. When Müller noticed this, he became furious. Hilde replied calmly that he surely didn’t want erroneous reports to be sent to headquarters, and he was welcome to check her corrections with the help of a dictionary.

Müller had to send regular reports on the camp’s labour potential to Oranienburg, the headquarters for all concentration camps. When a large transport with more than 2,000 Hungarian Jews arrived in Plaszow in the summer, Müller sorted out those who appeared particularly fit for work, the others were shot directly. Müller then dictated a report to Oranienburg, in which he announced that 300 new workers had been admitted to the camp and 1,700 had been liquidated on the spot.

In autumn 1944 Hilde Berger, like the other stenotypists, had to type many lists – lists of prisoners who went to Schindler and lists of those who were destined for other places. In 1939, NSDAP member Oskar Schindler had taken over a disused enamel factory near Plaszow and later bought it. The factory also produced bullet casings in 1942. Schindler used forged papers and bribes to get his factory classified as a wartime factory. When the evacuation of the Plaszow camp was being prepared, Schindler received permission from the central office in Oranienburg to continue to operate the factory with all its machinery and some thousand Jewish forced labourers in Brünnlitz in Czechoslovakia. Hilde Berger noticed during these weeks that SS people were repeatedly trying to put „their Jews“ on the Schindler list. These SS men did this not for humanitarian reasons, but because they knew that the war was lost and they wanted to establish an alibi as „Judenretter“ for the time afterward. It was therefore clear that this Brünnlitz transport offered better chances of survival. Hilde Berger therefore put her name and the names of some other Jews from Boryslaw that she knew on the Schindler lists. There were several copies of this Schindler List: after all, the names of 781 men and 297 women were on it. (Hilde Berger’s name in an alphabetic ordered list, number 7)

The transport towards Brünnlitz began on 15 October 1944 but did not end up in Brünnlitz: the men were taken to the Groß-Rosen concentration camp, while the women were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Auschwitz-Birkenau was a transit and extermination camp. When the Jewish women in the Schindler transport were stripped of their normal clothes, they believed that their journey was now over. Women who took their clothes from them said that all transports with a list were sent to the gas chambers. For four weeks Hilde and the other Jewish women in Auschwitz expected to go to the gas chambers daily, but then the transport continued on to Brünnlitz. The reason for the „diversion“ had been a regulation of the SS that prisoners had to be quarantined before being transferred to another camp, and there had been no room in Groß-Rosen for the 300 Jewish women on Schnindler’s List. Nevertheless, Oskar Schindler had to help with further bribes until the men and women were finally allowed to go to Brünnlitz.

When I came to Brünnlitz, I was lucky again and was sent to the office. There was very little to do. Schindler had a clever and ingenious plan: the main product he wanted to make was anti-aircraft shells, I think… But in reality he didn’t want to make them. He could always say: ‚I miss this material, I miss that material. I just can’t work‘. Sometimes inspections came from the Wehrmacht, not the SS. … He always managed to talk his way out of it. He was a good speaker and clever. He also bribed them.‘”. (Interview, in: Hesse, p. 143)

In the beginning the supply was good because Schindler arranged for additional food to be brought in from Poland by truck. From early 1945 this was no longer possible and everyone had to make do with a starvation ration: a tiny piece of bread every day and a thin beetroot soup in the morning. At night Hilde Berger dreamed of a whole loaf of bread, from which she could cut off slice after slice.

Oskar Schindler’s factory at Brněnec, 2004 (public domain, Miaow Miaow)

The SS men and their Commandant, a young, fanatical anti-Semite, constantly threatened that they would shoot all Jews in the camp at the end of the war. The Jewish prisoners then elected a committee to talk to Schindler. Schindler assured that he wanted to save all Jews in the plant and also had contact with the Czech resistance in Brünnlitz, who would supply weapons if necessary. In fact, things turned out differently: shortly before the end of the war, the SS men disappeared with their commandant. Hilde Berger suspected that Schindler had also bribed them. On May 9, 1945, after the German surrender, Schindler called everyone together in the factory and announced that everyone was now free. He asked that order and discipline be maintained until identity papers could be obtained to travel. A camp committee kept order, and Hilde Berger and others typed identity papers in Czech, English and Polish, which were certified with the stamp of the mayor of Brünnlitz. Some cried because they did not know where to go. Hilde, like most, decided to go to Poland: Perhaps some relatives were still alive?

Hilde Berger short biography

Hilde Berger, episode 1
Hilde Berger, episode 2
Hilde Berger, episode 4 (in preparation)