Oral History

Leah Hammerstein Silverstein describes working under a false non-Jewish identity in a German hospital in Krakow

Leah grew up in Praga, a suburb of Warsaw, Poland. She was active in the Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir Zionist youth movement. Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. Jews were forced to live in the Warsaw ghetto, which the Germans sealed off in November 1940. In the ghetto, Leah lived with a group of Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir members. In September 1941, she and other members of the youth group escaped from the ghetto to a Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir farm in Zarki, near Czestochowa, Poland. In May 1942, Leah became a courier for the underground, using false Polish papers and traveling between the Krakow ghetto and the nearby Plaszow camp. As conditions worsened, she escaped to Tarnow, but soon decided to return to Krakow. Leah also posed as a non-Jewish Pole in Czestochowa and Warsaw, and was a courier for the Jewish National Committee and the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB). She fought with a Jewish unit in the Armia Ludowa (People's Army) during the Warsaw Polish uprising in 1944. Leah was liberated by Soviet forces. After the war she helped people emigrate from Poland, then moved to Israel herself before settling in the United States.


At, at another time I was sitting in front of a big basket with vegetables, cleaning it, and the sun rays came on my head and one of the girls said, "Look, her hair is reddish like a Jewess." And everybody laughed, and I laughed most hilariously, you know, but inside, you know, the fear was gnawing on my insides, you know. At another time the kitchen chef grabbed me and put my head on the table. He was preparing the, uh, the sausage for the evening supper. And he put this long knife to my neck and said, "You see, if you were Jewish, I would cut off your head." Big laughter in the room, and I laughed most hilariously, of course. But you know what it does to a psyche of a young girl in her formative years? Can you imagine? With nobody to con...console, cons...console you, with nobody to tell you it's okay, it'll be better, hold on. Total isolation, total loneliness. It's a terrible feeling. You know, you are among people and you are like on an island all alone. There is nobody you can go to ask for help. You can nobody ask for advice. You had to make life-threatening decisions all by yourself in a very short time, and you never knew whether your decision will be beneficial to you or detrimental to your existence. It was like playing Russian roulette with your life. And it was not only one incident. It was this way from the moment I came on the Aryan side.


  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection
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