Jumping From the Train
“The non-Jews watched like a show and laughed, and we cried.”
– Eva Galler, recounting the public degradation of the Jews
once the Germans returned on June 22, 1941
Eva Galler was born on January 1, 1923, in the town of Oleszyce (Oh-la-shit-za) in southeastern Poland. The region, known as Galicia, belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I. During that time, the Jews had enjoyed (relative) equality. Jew hatred was plentiful but not officially endorsed, as it was in Tsarist Russia. Eva’s father served in the Austro-Hungarian during the 1914-’18 war. He was devoted to Kaiser Franz Josef, idolized as a defender of his Jewish subjects. After the war, Galicia fell within the borders of newly independent Poland, leaving the Galician Jews distraught. They considered the Poles irredeemably anti-Semitic and worried about the Jewish future under a Polish government.
Life Before the War
Oleszyce’s population consisted of 811 Poles, 862 Ukrainians, and 1,896 Jews. The town was very poor. The great majority of Jews was Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox). The brick synagogue resembled a fortress. There were two prayer houses. The town was well-known for the “manufacture” of religious “articles” such as the Torah and prayer shawls. Jews owned nearly all the stores on the market square. They were prohibited from owning land. Poles and Ukrainians were farmers. They complained that Jews had a stranglehold on the economy and cheated the non-Jews with a thumb on the scale, etc. What’s more, the Poles and the Ukrainians weren’t on friendly terms either. Tension lay only slightly beneath the surface.
“Eva was popular and unique. She dressed in the modern style, loved Polish literature, and always had a book in her hand. She was the only girl in town who played chess with the men – and beat them! As a young girl Eva had many suitors. Henry Galler was a favorite. Many years later he would say that Eva was his “sweetheart” long before the war.”
Between the wars, the Poles held the reins of power in Oleszyce. Jews and Ukrainians were second-class citizens. The three ethnic groups lived next to one another but in separate worlds. No one group was free of stereotypes about “the other,” but friendships across the divide were common. Polish, Jewish, and Ukrainian families in this small town had known each other for generations. The children attended the same school. The Jews were required to sit on the left side of the classroom, apart from their Polish and Ukrainian classmates.
Eva summarizes the Jewish existence in Oleszyce before the war: “It was a quiet life. We didn’t know anything better, and we didn’t have any complaints. Everybody lived their own life.”
Eva came from an Hasidic family. Her father Israel Vogel was a leader in the Jewish community and a successful businessman. He exported religious “articles” to Jewish communities in Poland as well as in Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Eva’s mother Ita was much younger than her husband. The marriage wasn’t her idea. Israel was a recent widower with six children. Eva was the oldest of eight children from her father’s second marriage. When the war began in 1939, she was 16. Her siblings were Hana (14), Pincus (13), Berko (12), Molly (10,) Dora (8), and Gezel (6). Aariel was born in 1939, on the eve of war.
Eva’s six half-brothers and sisters from her father’s first marriage were Isaac, Sala, Rebecca, Leo, Marcus, and Moses. Leo lived in New York City. He was in business with his father, selling religious “articles.” Moses married a visiting American girl in the summer of 1939. They left for the United States on the last boat to get out before the war.
September 1, 1939
Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Two days later, England and France declared war on Germany. An Austrian division of the German army occupied Oleszyce on September 12th. Ukrainians greeted the invaders, believing Hitler would give them an independent Ukraine. The Austrian soldiers were in a playful mood. They cut off the beards and the ear-locks of the religious Jews, and photographed the exercise. The dehumanization of the victims was an important step towards their physical destruction. Eva recounts the arrival of the Germans in Oleszyce: “When they went through the main street, whoever was on the street was shot. But the main objective was just how to start to degrade the Jews. Before they killed them they have to degrade them, turn into nothing.”
September 17, 1939
On September 17th, as the Polish forces reeled before the German onslaught, the Russians attacked Poland and occupied the eastern half of the country. Polish opposition was minimal. Poland was divided between Hitler and Stalin. They had agreed to divide the country (and the Baltic states) on August 23, 1939, when their foreign ministers signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop (non-aggression) Pact.
The German army withdrew from Oleszyce on September 15th but didn’t go far. The new German-Russian was the San River, thirty kilometers to the west. The Russians occupied Oleszyce later that day. Many Jews welcomed the Russians. Some had communist sympathies. Others preferred anybody to the Nazis.
The Russians imposed a brutal regime. The NKVD (Soviet secret police) organized a militia of Jews and Ukrainians and a network of spies (which included Poles). Polish leaders (government officials, military officers, teachers, police, etc.) were arrested. Their families were deported to Siberia. Stalin wanted to decapitate the Polish people by putting it on a train and making it disappear. He had pursued against the Russian people during the previous twenty years. The NKVD struck Oleszyce several times in 1940. A dozen or so Polish families and two Jewish ones were rounded up in the middle of the night, loaded on box cars, and sent to the far east. In Soviet-occupied Poland, between 1940 and 1941, the Russians arrested and deported one and a half million people, mostly Poles, to the depths of the Russian interior.
Henry Galler was arrested by the Russians in April 1941. He left a labor detail digging anti-tank ditches and returned home to celebrate Passover with his family. The NKVD took him away in chains. He was sentenced to three years in labor camp. This turned out to be fortuitous. When the Germans returned to Oleszyce in 1941, Henry was far way, beyond their reach. The rest of his family would be killed.
Soviet rule in Oleszyce, when Poles were the principal target, lasted two years and three months
June 22, 1941
Hitler launched the invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941. Oleszyce was occupied that morning. The Germans inaugurated a reign of terror instantly. They formed a Ukrainian police force, and the persecution of the Jews began. They were summoned to the market square, as Eva tells us: “They were able to do with us what they wanted. The non-Jews watched like a show, and laughed, and we cried. The feeling that time was so painful: ‘Look, we are nothing.’”
The Germans established a Judenrat (Jewish Council). It was a conduit for relaying German orders. When the Germans wanted to extract a bribe, the Judenrat, knowing where to turn, had to come up with it. When the Germans demanded a certain number of men for labor, the Judenrat had to select them. The poorest people suffered the most. They weren’t able to buy their way out. These men were forced to build roads and treated inhumanely. A Jewish police force was organized – and used as an instrument of German control. Jews were ordered to wear the Star of David armband. They were forbidden to walk on the wooden sidewalks. They were ordered to walk in the muddy street with the horses.
Meanwhile, Henry Galler was released from Soviet prison. He joined the Polish army that was formed in Russia, and served as an artillery officer until the German collapse. He concealed his Jewish identity the entire time.
Operation Reinhard and the Murder of Polish Jews
The mass murder of the Polish Jews in the so-called Government-General was called Operation Reinhard in recognition of a finance official in Berlin, reflecting the profit motive behind murder campaign. It began on March 17, 1942. A trainload of Jews from the Lublin ghetto was sent to a death camp that was recently constructed next to the railroad station in Belzec, a town that was virtually next to Oleszyce. The same railroad line passed through both towns.
Belzec was operated by relatively few Germans. They relied on Ukrainian auxiliaries. Five hundred Jewish men worked in the camp, digging graves, hauling bodies, washing out the gas chambers, etc. Their life expectancy was next to nothing. The Nazis were thieves as well as murderers. They profited immensely from the stolen Jewish property. So did ordinary Polish and Ukrainian people. They moved into Jewish homes and took over Jewish shops. After the war, some locals dug up the ground at Belzec and searched for buried diamonds, or perhaps a gold filling carelessly overlooked by the otherwise thrifty murderers.
Misery in the Lubaczow Ghetto
On October 14, 1942, the Jews of Oleszyce (and nearby communities) were ordered to the ghetto in Lubaczow [Lou-batt-choff], a town seven kilometers from Oleszyce. Before the Jews left their homes, while they were hurriedly packing, the Polish and Ukrainian neighbors descended like vultures. They grabbed what they wanted, and fought savagely to keep it. The Jews, concentrated in the ghetto, subjected to disease and starvation, awaited deportation and murder. The ghetto was filthly and impossibly overcrowded. Eva’s family and relatives, thirty-seven in all, lived in a single room, and they were lucky. Eva offers a vivid description of the Lubaczow ghetto: “People lived even on the street. They lived in halls. They lived in the steps they lived in the attics. Where ever they had place. Because of the tightness and proximity and the unsanitary conditions there were epidemics. Different infectious diseases. So we lived so close that they spread very quickly. Many people died. Everyday were funerals.”
In Eva’s second month in the Lubazcow ghetto, The Times-Picayune published a short article about Dr. Wise’s press conference in Washington, D.C., when he announced that the State Department had confirmed the systematic and on-going murder of the Jewish people in Europe. The article was placed on page 2. The headline was hard to miss.
The Times-Picayune, December 18, 1942 – ALLIES TO PUNISH SLAYERS OF JEWS AT END OF WAR, Practical Steps Being Taken to Catalogue Guilty, Says Hull, (AP) p. 14
A month later, an article in the Picayune summarized the United Nations’ War Crimes Declaration. Over the protests of officials in the State Department, the United Nations’ Declaration was announced to the public on December 17, 1942. Unique among official declarations during the war, this one emphasized the Nazi murder campaign against the Jews, and the Nazi goal of wiping out the entire Jewish people. The Allies vowed retribution. The article was on p. 14.
Meanwhile, trains loaded with unsuspecting Jews continued to pass Oleszyce and Lubachow on the way to the gas chambers at Belzec. Eva relates the story of a young Jewish man (born in Oleszyce) who escaped from Belzec and informed people in the ghetto that Belzec meant gas chambers: “But by chance he told us that a German helped him to escape. A German, he found a German who was a saint, and he let him escape. But the boy died anyhow later. He escaped and he told us what had happened. And then everybody was already on alert. We knew what is going to happen with us.”
January 8, 1943
On Friday, January 8, 1943, “a bright cold day,” SS, Ukrainian police, and Jewish police (brothers of the victims), marched the Jews to the train station two blocks away. The violence was overwhelming. Jews were shot in the streets. Fifteen hundred were shot in the Jewish cemetery. For days afterward the “corpse-filled sleighs” headed out of town to a field where the corpses were dumped in a mass grave. Eva and her family were discovered hiding behind a “double wall.” Unlike the many people who preceded them, the Jews in the Lubaczow ghetto knew they were going to a gas chamber. They thought it would be at Belzec, but Belzec had ceased operations in December 1942. Where did the Jews in Lubaczow ghetto end up? Possibly at Sobibor. Eva tells us that her father instructed the three oldest children to jump from the train and escape: “But my little brother, the youngest, who was three years old, and he started to cry, ‘I want to live too! I want to live too!’ And these words stayed with me the whole life, no matter how I tried to forget.”
After jumping from the train, Eva walked back to Oleszyce. It was very cold and few people were outside, which was fortunate for Eva. She was afraid someone might denounce her. Eva found shelter with two women. The first was Ukrainian, the other Polish. Eva had known them before the war. The Ukrainian woman hid Eva behind a closet: “She let me stay ‘til evening. Later she gave me a shawl to keep warm, half [a loaf of] bread, few Polish zlotys [money], and I went. She told me to go.” The Polish woman refused to open the door for Eva. Later that night she found Eva sleeping next to a calf in the barn, trying to stay warm. The woman brought Eva into the house for the night but let her know she would have to leave before sunrise. The woman was afraid her neighbors would denounce her to the Germans. She knew quite well that the penalty for helping Jews was death.
“Passing” as a Christian
The next day Eva walked thirty kilometers in the snow to the city of Jaroslaw. She purchased a ticket and boarded a regular passenger train to Cracow. When the conductor approached, checking identity papers, she hid in the bathroom. No one suspected she was Jewish. Her looks didn’t give her away, her Polish was perfect, and she was lucky.
For three nights Eva slept in the Cracow train station. Each day she ventured further into the city, searching for food and Jews. She wanted to find the ghetto. She felt safer in the ghetto than on the Aryan side. On the third day she was caught by the Germans in a street round-up. They were grabbing young Polish people for labor in the Reich and didn’t suspect Eva was Jewish. She received identification papers (with a false name and place of birth) and was sent to work at an Austrian farm on the Czech-Austrian border (in the former Sudetenland). Nearby towns were Kirschfeld and Joslowitz. Eva befriended the other Polish laborers but told no one she was Jewish. She spent two years on this farm. The Austrian family, not suspecting the truth, treated her well.
Liberated by the Russians
Eva was liberated by the Russians in April 1945. She returned to Poland (but not to Oleszyce) and lived in Wroclaw (formerly Breslau) with a group of survivors from Oleszyce. Her friend Annie Wertman made plans to marry David Bleiberg. Both were from Oleszyce.
Dressed in the uniform of a Polish officer, Henry Galler showedup at the wedding. Eva hadn’t seen him since 1941. She remembers: “When he opened door, I was sitting on the chair. I thought I was seeing a ghost. I almost fainted, and Henry came to me and said, ‘We are getting married.’”
Eva explained she couldn’t get married because she was leaving for Sweden. She flew there in July 1946, and Henry followed her five months later. He smuggled himself out of Poland on a Swedish coal boat.
Eva and Henry were married on December 24, 1946. They had no possessions, and no relatives. Eva borrowed a coat for the ceremony. Two strangers were summoned from the street to be witnesses.
Immigration to America
Eva and Henry lived in Sweden for eight years. They loved it. Two of the daughters were born there. But Eva wanted to be reunited with her half-brother Leon. The Galler family immigrated to the United States in 1954. They lived in Brooklyn and were miserable. Henry worked several jobs. A third daughter was born. The family moved to New Orleans in 1962. Henry worked as a tailor at at Rubenstein Brothers on Canal Street but soon opened his own business, “Mr. Henry Custom Tailor.” Eva taught Hebrew to Jewish boys preparing for their Bar Mitzvah. She received a history degree from the University of New Orleans in 1985.
With the Southern Institute, Eva and Henry spent their twilight years telling their story to students and teachers across the Deep South. Eva’s message was clear: “I think everybody should be treated equal and everybody should be given a chance. And I hope the history won’t repeat itself. Of course I can’t forget that I had a family, what way my family was taken away from me. I hope that forgiveness will teach people not to do what was done before.”
After Eva and Henry made a presentation in Thibodaux, Louisiana, the Southern Institute received a note from an appreciative parent:
Eva and Henry lost their home to the flood waters that followed Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. They moved to Dallas, Texas, where one of their daughters lived. Eva died on January 5, 2006. She was buried in Dallas, exiled from her first home and her second. Henry died on October 14, 2012. He was buried next to Eva, his wife of 59 years.