by Isabella Kulawik (Class of 2024)
This is part of a series of articles written by journalism students from Pine View School in Osprey, Fla., based on in-depth interviews the students conducted with Holocaust survivors.
Krakow, Poland, a gilded city, cobblestones cover the uneven roads of the old town as the light green copper roofs reflect in the sunlight. The remnants of the age of kings and queens lingers in the air. Nonetheless, the city still buzzed with the normality and consistency of everyday life. Felicia Liban spent the beginning of her life in a lush apartment in the city. Her father was a dentist, while her mother remained at home, and her uncles often kept Liban company when she was not too busy getting scolded by her nursemaid.
“I had a very close relationship with my mom and my dad. I can’t say that about my nursemaid because I wasn’t such a good girl. They used to quit a lot and I used to say to my mother, ‘Who’s coming today?’” Liban said with a light chuckle.
Amidst playing with her uncle George, Liban continued to live her adolescent years joyfully, however war was brewing just around the corner. Things were becoming worse for Poland and Liban’s family because they were Jewish. Then, September 1, 1939, tensions overflowed. The Nazis invaded Poland.
“It changed immediately because the Germans marched into Krakow with tanks and there were bombs… you could hear them in the distance,” Liban said.
With their lives in danger, the Libans realized that they needed to leave the city. They soon began the long walk to Russia, where they would hopefully receive aid.
“And so, they packed up the knapsacks and food and water and stuff and we started walking. Well, I didn’t walk too well because I couldn’t keep up with them and they had to carry me, it was just too difficult everything started to look impossible, so they turned around,” Liban said.
Returning home from their failed journey, the Libans decided it would be best for her father to leave for Russia and reunite when he was settled. This was the last time Liban would see her father.
“It was sad. I remember seeing him walking down the stairs. I do, I remember that very well,” Liban said.
After her father left for Russia, Liban and her mother continued to struggle agianst Nazi aggression. Their belongings were stripped away from them, valuable objects were lost to the war. Shortly after the Nazi’s killed Liban’s dog, and then took away her apartment.
“So that was pretty much horrific to see everything and, also one of the housemaids took my dog for a walk and one of the Nazis shot it in the street, killed it. It was horrible, it was horrible. But we lived in the apartment for a little while until they decided that this wasn’t our apartment anymore,” Liban said.
With nothing left in the city, Liban and her family moved out into the country. She spent her time there enjoying the grass and fishing in the small ponds with George. And during this period, her grandfather died suddenly of a stroke. While they managed to escape the war for a short period, it soon followed them to their rural haven. The Libans had to leave and move to the ghetto in Krakow.
“It was better for him because he never suffered through the rest of the war and he was buried in Krakow in a Jewish cemetery. You know it’s sort of strange to say this, somebody I loved, but he was better off,” Liban said.
Returning to the city, the family dealt with the dismal conditions of the ghetto. Cramped one room apartments housed five beds and a kitchen. During the day, her uncles and mother left to work in the city. Making bras for women, Liban’s mother met the family who would save her daughter from the concentration camps.
“One place she went, and their name was Warenica and they said to my mother, ‘Look, if you ever need anything, if you ever are stuck and you don’t know what to do or you need our help we are there, we will help you,’” Liban said.
Taking up the Warenica’s offer, a plan for escaping the ghetto began to form. Using the remaining valuables Liban’s mother had left, she rented a basement which had access to the city through a coal chute. As Nazis began liquidating the ghetto, they made their daring escape. Looking straight ahead Liban and her mother walked past the guards in bright daylight, but they did not stop them.
“So, we did that, my mother went, and you know the Germans were standing there and she would wink at them, smile at them, she was very very pretty. And you know these were young fellows and they liked that whole idea, so they just let her go by and they didn’t care,” Liban said.
As they pushed themselves through the coal chute, they met an unfamiliar sight. The city was still, no cars on the road, the usual vibrant life of the city was gone. Krakow held its breath, as its people and culture was taken away. Walking down the silent street the Libans clutched the few belongings that remained with them, a photo album being one of them. When they finally reached the Warenicas’ apartment, Liban and her mother parted, as her mother went to find fake papers. The minutes turned into hours and the hours into days, but Liban’s mother did not return. Something had gone wrong. At this moment, Stasia and Joseph Warenica decided, Felicia was to become a part of their family.
“It was terribly sad, but they made me feel so loved that I was quiet about it and I didn’t cry. I didn’t carry it on,” Liban said.
For the next few years of her life Liban learned to live in the shadows, never to be seen by others lest someone realized she was Jewish. Nonetheless, her life was still filled with love as Joseph and Stasia Warenica saw her as one of their own. However, no matter how safe Liban was from the Germans, she began to suffer from lack of sunlight and fresh air.
“This was a problem because being that I had no fresh air, no sun I became very green under the gills so to speak, I looked sick and they were very concerned,” Liban said.
Liban could not remain like this, and she soon found herself on a farm in Ukraine to receive some much-needed outdoors.
“Minimal, kind of a place you know, the floor was made of mud, the mattress was made of hay and burlap was what they used to keep all the stuff in, in the mattress, and so was the pillow so it kind of stuck in you, it kind of hurt. I wasn’t used to that, we had silk pillowcases at home, but I never complained, everything was fine,” Liban said.
Amongst the golden fields of wheat Liban enjoyed her summer where she blended in with the family she stayed with. She went to church on Sunday with the others, pretending to be a Christian child. During her days running with the other children, suspicions were forming amongst some of the townspeople. The local priest believed that Liban was Jewish and informed the police. She was later questioned by the police, who were armed with guns. Satisfied with her answers they left but informed the farmer who took Liban in that her paperwork must be dropped by the station.
In a quick call to Warenica in Krakow, Joseph boarded a train to Ukraine to drop off the proper paperwork and take Liban home. Warenica viewed this as a getaway and took his chance to relax in the few remaining winds of summer before the harvest ended. Reunited, Liban and Warenica spent their weekend enjoying themselves.
At night before Warenica came, there was a commotion which rocked the quiet village. Shots rang out, and disarray followed in the square. On Sunday morning Liban and Warenica went to church as usual. However, there was something different, in the center of the hall was a casket, there lay the priest. His ears cut off and haphazardly bandaged to his head, he was killed.
“Well, it turned out that the Underground came and killed the priest, my uncle ordered it because that was a no no. Turns out he was an officer in the Polish Underground. So that was the priest laid out in his coffin and my uncle said, ‘Just take a look at him.’” Liban said.
Returning to Krakow after her eventful summer, she was reunited with Stasia Warenica and their child Janusz. As things calmed down Liban was allowed more freedoms, she went to the park, the grocery store, and she transitioned into a version of normalcy. While it was still too dangerous for her to attend school, Joseph borrowed books from the library for her to read and a tutor continued her education. Liban’s life remained this way until the end of the war.
The war ended, the Nazis left Poland and Jews were freed as concentration camps were liberated. Soon after Liban was reunited with her mother. She was caught because of the yellow band in her wallet as she retrieved fake papers after she left Liban with the Warenicasphoto, the Nazis beat her, and she was sent to the camps. Liban’s mother was liberated from Theresienstadt, a camp in the Czech Republic, which was staged for the Red Cross to hide the atrocities the Nazis were doing.
“When my mother came back, I didn’t really want to be with her right away because [the Warenica] were my family but my mother just let it be and slowly, slowly I went back to her. But she gave me time,” Liban said.
Liban and her mother would not find out what happened to her father until years after the war. Eventually, the Red Cross informed them that he was imprisoned in a Russian Lager, but when fighting broke out between Russia and Germany he was released. After he was freed, he attempted to walk to Istanbul where he could hopefully find a way to reach his family again. However, he contracted typhus and died on the side of the road during his journey.
Once the war was over, Liban and her mother had to make a journey themselves. Poland was no longer safe for Jews, and they fled under the cover of night to avoid the shootings. Liban and her mother snuck onto a coal train. As they made their way through Germany Liban contracted typhoid at one of the wells they used and became very ill. Her mother had to take her to a hospital. In post-war Germany, areas were completely flat due to the bombing and the hospital was on a basement level. Liban and her mother received some unexpected help when they walked in.
“As she did that a German man came up and he says, ‘Let me help you carry her.’ You know there’s some good people no matter who, he was German, but he helped my mother, isn’t that something?” Liban said.
Placed in isolation it took months for Liban to fully heal. Eventually, they were reunited with uncle George and Bernard, who survived the camps by staying together. For the remainder of their time in Germany they stayed in a displaced persons camp, where Liban’s mother, with the help of United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNNRA), was able to set up a passage to New York for them to start a new life. When they reached the United States, Liban and her family did everything they could to acclimate as quickly as possible, they only spoke English at home.
“I don’t know how she did all that, I don’t know, she was just amazing. Now thinking back she was just amazing,” Liban said.
As the years passed, Liban formed a family of her own and still remains in touch with the Warenicas. Now she lives in Sarasota, Florida and is a very skilled Jewelry maker. Liban also shares her story in schools to educate and ensure that something like the holocaust does not happen again. Which is more important now than ever, as antisemitic hate crimes rise across the country.
“I abhor antisemitism or any kind of inkling even of this sort of thing I think its just horrible and when the young people ever see this, they should say something about it, don’t let it go by as if it didn’t happen, report it,” Liban said.
She reminds the younger generation that people should still remain positive in light of recent events and to continue to fight.
“I feel very positive as a Jew, and I feel that I have a right to my way of thinking. I’m not very religious but I am a Jew. I don’t hide it, and I am very proud of it, and so that is positive in itself,” Liban said.