As young boys, Jerry and Mike Koenig escaped the ghetto in Warsaw, Poland and survived the last 22 months of the war by hiding in a bunker under a barn close enough to smell the smoke from the Treblinka death camp.
On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, they joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh in studio to tell their story. Jerry Koenig is now a resident of Chesterfield, and his brother Mike is visiting from Israel.
If the Nazis had had their way, the Koenig family would have died in the Warsaw ghetto early in the war. But through a combination of bravery, quick thinking, the luck of having personal assets, and the kindness of others, the family of four survived the Holocaust. Six million Jews did not.
When Nazi Germany took over Poland in 1939, Jerry Koenig was nine years old. His younger brother Mike was seven. They were born into a middle-class Jewish family and lived in Prusków, a suburb of Warsaw. The family first lived in a ghetto in Prusków before being relocated to the Warsaw ghetto.
The Warsaw Ghetto
In the Warsaw ghetto, hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced to live in a 2 square mile block behind a ten-foot wall topped with wire and broken glass. Disease and starvation were rampant, and the only way to survive was to buy food on the black market.
“The fortunate thing was, money helps,” said Jerry Koenig. “Our parents were fairly well off by Polish standards, and they brought with them some financial resources. And because of that we were able to survive for a certain length of time in the Warsaw ghetto.”
But they were surrounded by death every time they walked out of the apartment they shared with their uncle and his family.
“When I would walk out the doors, I would walk out on a street where there were dead bodies lying covered by newspapers,” said Mike Koenig. “The method of the Germans at that time … was to kill the Jews by both starvation and disease.”
Escaping the Warsaw Ghetto
After a period of time, Mike, Jerry, their mother and their grandfather managed to escape the Warsaw ghetto by paying a smuggler and bribing street car officials.
During two successive shifts, they boarded the street car in the ghetto, and stayed on as it passed through to the other side of the ghetto. Their father was at a forced labor camp back in their hometown of Prosków at the time.
The price of the bribe for the streetcar driver to look the other way was a sack of potatoes.
“That was the price of Jewish lives,” said Mike.
Once they made it out of Warsaw, the Koenigs reunited in the town of Kosów Lacki, where they lived with the Zylberman family on their tiny farm. At first, Jews were allowed to live and work as normal in the town. But after a roundup by the Germans which sent most of the Jews to the newly created Treblinka, the Koenigs were relocated to a ghetto in Kosów Lacki.
Finding a Hiding Place
Knowing it was only a matter of time until they too were brought to the death camp, their father recruited two young brothers to find a farmer willing to hide them. In exchange for their lives, he offered to sign over ownership of a sixty-acre farm nearby. The Polish Catholic Gorals took them up on the offer, and a bunker was dug out under the Goral’s barn for them to hide in.
The Koenig family and seven other Jews survived the final 22 months of the war by living in that bunker, which Jerry estimated to be 24 feet long, six feet wide and four feet deep.
During those 22 months, two especially traumatic events took place. At one point the Zylberman family tried to join the Koenig’s in their hiding place, but Mr. Goral refused, saying they couldn’t take any more people in.
“Mr. Zylberman went back to the (nearby) forest….And within a day they were murdered,” said Mike. He recalled that Mrs. Zylberman had her head cut off so her gold teeth could be extracted.
At another point, one of the young women hiding with them gave birth to a baby girl. Because the baby’s crying would have made the neighbors aware of their existence, the baby was put to death.
Because of the bedbugs inside the bunker, the baby was especially fussy, said Mike, and in the end the sacrifice was made in order to save the lives of the eleven hiding in the bunker, as well as the Goral family who was keeping them alive.
After almost two years of living in the bunker, the Koenigs and their companions in hiding were liberated by the Soviets traveling westward with the front line.
“We were very glad to see them,” said Jerry of the Russian soldiers. “They couldn’t believe we were really live people because we were white as snow. It’s amazing what two years without sunlight will do to skin.”
Mike Koenig has documented his family's story of survival in a book, At The Edge of An Abyss: A Story of Holocaust Survival Near The Death Camp Treblinka.
If Only You Could Have Promised! (Feige’s Baby)
By Mike Koenig
O little girl, O little baby,
You were born so healthy but had to die…
If only you could have promised to be quiet,
If only you could have promised not to cry!
Your mother bore you during the war,
Under a barn—in a shelter of straw,
And if you were not quiet,
Eleven people would die…
That’s why, little baby,
We could not let you cry!
I remember the flame of the kerosene lamp
Singeing the scissors for cutting your cord;
I remember so clearly your first lusty yell
Forcing its way through the shelter’s trapdoor.
Above in the farmhouse, at the same time,
A baby like you was born and died.
We wanted to put you in the dead baby’s crib,
But the midwife knew…
That’s why, little girl,
You had to die too…!
I remember your mother holding you tight,
While placing a spoon to your lips…
“Sip your tea, baby…hush and don’t cry,
You’ll soon hear eternity’s sad lullaby!”
I am sorry, O baby, that you had to die…
If only you could have promised to be quiet!
If only you could have promised not to cry!