8 Long SecondsNostalgia, War Stories | April 26, 2014
By Jamie-Lee Dwyer
AS a 12 year-old Jewish boy in Warsaw, Poland during World War II, Alex Tomkin narrowly escaped a gruesome fate and in all likelihood eventual death at one of the German extermination camps. His savior was none other than one of the Nazi officers sent to his district to gather Jewish people for the camps. 8 of the longest seconds in his short life saw Alex Tomkin have his life spared by this man without any explanation as to why he’d been saved when others hadn’t.
Born in February 1931, Alex grew up in an apartment in Warsaw with his parents. Being an only child he was very sheltered in his early years, having a governess who collected him from school and took him to play in the park.
Alex attended a Polish school and had a Polish upbringing, he didn’t even speak Jewish. 8 year-old Alex considered himself to be more Polish than Jewish when the war began.
Germany declared war on Poland on 1 September 1939, and began bombing Polish cities the same day.
Shortly before Warsaw was invaded Alex’s parents decided to flee to a city 190km away, Bialystok. They did this because his father was a Polish Officer in the Air Force, and Bialystok was protected by the Russians.
Months passed in Bialystok, but eventually Alex and his Mother decided to go home to Warsaw, so he could resume school in the New Year, leaving his Father to join them later. Alex and his Mother crossed the border illegally into the now German-run Warsaw. They did this in the middle of the night, with his Mother carrying him through the heavy snow.
Upon arrival Alex was immediately forced to withdraw from school, and forbidden to leave the house, along with many Jewish people. To say Alex’s world was turned upside-down is an understatement.
“I definitely wasn’t prepared for upheaval, war, blood, or death. I was just a little boy who lacked any real understanding of what was happening all around me.”
A few days after his Father arrived home, German officers knocked on the door of their apartment in Warsaw. When the door opened German officers rushed inside and seized their home, including furniture. The officers barked orders at the family to pack two suitcases and get out.
Alex went with his parents to a different part of Warsaw where they lived in a cramped house with his Aunt and six other Jewish families. His family was given one small bedroom to live in because the other rooms were full. That month he began attending Jewish school with the other children in the house. Sometime later the Germans declared certain parts of Warsaw to be the ghetto, where all the Jewish people were forced to live. Luckily, the house where Alex and his parents were staying was already part of the Warsaw ghetto, so they didn’t have to move again.
As soon as the Warsaw ghetto was declared publicly the Germans began building large concrete walls around it. Once the walls had been built life continued normally—or as close to normal as his new life was—for Alex, without further German orders to be carried out. He was attending school, his family didn’t have enough food—but he wasn’t starving like many were, and his parents still had some money.
However, the misery of the Warsaw ghetto still seeped into his every-day life as a 10 year-old.
“People who were dying of starvation just died right on the footpath, and it wasn’t ‘til the next morning that the Jewish undertakers were allowed to remove the bodies.”
The undertakers were made to wait until early morning, because Jewish people inside the Warsaw ghetto weren’t permitted to be on the streets after 8pm at night. The morning funeral carts were always heavily supervised by the Germans, who had forced Jews to dig large pits in the Jewish cemetery for the bodies to be dumped in. Jewish people weren’t allowed outside of the ghetto, even to get rid of the naked corpses. The bodies were always naked due to families of the deceased being forced to strip their relatives in order to sell the clothes.
German officers who were posted by the gates into Warsaw ghetto would often entertain themselves and each other by making the Jewish residents dance together, even those who were ill and physically disabled. The Jews were also forced to take off their hats and bow their heads as a sign of respect whenever an officer passed through the ghetto.
It was the beginning of 1942 when the Germans decided to take a certain percentage of the Warsaw ghetto and send them to extermination camps in Treblinka. The Jewish people didn’t know they were being sent to their death, and instead were fed lies by the Germans—who told them they were being relocated to the East to work.
During this time, a certain amount of Jewish people were able to get work within the ghetto, working for Germans in factories. Jews who did this work received work papers from the Germans granting them protection from being sent away to the East. Alex’s Father managed to secure a job for the three of them in a German factory.
Their new jobs meant that the family needed to move to an area in Warsaw ghetto known as the Small ghetto—the two were connected by a bridge. The family moved into a big apartment in the Small ghetto with six bedrooms. However, they weren’t the only ones living there and had to share the apartment with other working families. There were towels on the ground which separated each room into four small areas, and each family was allocated one quadrant to sleep in.
“The living conditions were worse [in this apartment] than in our previous situation. It was very noisy and even more cramped, but we were all still alive and that was what mattered most!”
The factory they worked in made uniforms for German officers. This factory and the apartment block they lived in was surrounded by a wire fence and was locked 24/7. All factory workers were forbidden to leave the Small ghetto and return to the Warsaw ghetto, even to see family members.
Alex began working in the factory at age eleven dispersing the completed uniforms to workers for packaging, his Mother sowed the buttons on the uniforms, and his Father cut material. Alex worked during the night and his parents worked during the day, which meant they slept on alternate schedules and only saw each other for an hour a day. They received one meal a day in the factory, and although they were still hungry they remained in good spirits.
One day, in late 1942, while his parents were at work, Alex awoke to the sound of ear-splitting screams, and an explosion of gun-fire coming from outside.
He walked onto the little balcony outside his room to see what was happening. He stood frozen as he watched a family, with young kids, running down the street only to be shot dead while escaping.
Looking down Alex could see that anyone who went racing out of his apartment block was being shot on exit. Those who weren’t killed straightaway were run over in cars by the officers.
Alex began slowly retreating and as a result the bullet, fired from a German officer’s gun, whizzed past him. The knowledge that one of the officers had seen him, combined with hearing a bullet hit the wall above his head, spurred him into action. He ran inside and began going from room to room—looking for somewhere to hide.
Alex realised what was happening. The Germans had come to take them to the death camps, and those who ran were being killed on the spot. Their work papers, the only ‘protection’ against being sent to the death camps, meant nothing to these officers.
Frantically searching his own apartment, he couldn’t find a decent hiding place anywhere. So he left his apartment and went into the hallway. Alex saw other apartment doors in the block flung open, which made it easier for him to search for possible hiding places. Eventually he noticed a wardrobe standing against a wall inside one of the rooms. He scrambled into the wardrobe and wedged himself tightly into a corner before he closed the door.
Pulse racing, trying to be as still and silent as possible, Alex sat alone in dark like a frightened animal. A few minutes later he heard doors banging and furniture being moved around, the culprits were speaking German, and he guessed the officers were raiding rooms to check for survivors.
“I just kept hoping that they wouldn’t find me.”
Suddenly he could hear the officers were in the apartment and he heard them as they ventured into his room with the wardrobe.
And then the double doors of the wardrobe opened to reveal a German officer fixated on Alex.
A tall, solid man with blue/green eyes wore the much-feared olive-green Nazi uniform. He wore the same boots as all German officers and sported the typical Nazi Swastika on his right arm. A matching belt wrapped around his middle, which held his gun, and he had on his head a round officer’s cap.
This man certainly looked just like other German officers, but he didn’t behave like one. The officer looked Alex up and down without a word and then shut the doors, declaring to others in the room there was no-one in the wardrobe. This act, which decided whether Alex lived or died, took in total roughly eight long seconds. There was no explanation from the soldier as to why Alex was spared; Alex didn’t even know his saviour’s name.
“To this day I have no idea why this German officer did what he did. He endangered his life because if another officer had seen me after he had told them the wardrobe was empty he would’ve been killed.”
When Alex got out of the wardrobe he discovered everyone in the Small ghetto had either been taken or shot dead. That evening when the day workers arrived home Alex and his parents were reunited. Not everyone was so lucky though, and that night the cries and moans of the grieving lulled them to sleep.
Years later, long after the war was over and the Germans had left Poland, Alex migrated to Australia to work.
His parents had come to Australia a few years earlier, leaving Alex to finish his schooling in Poland. Shortly after his arrival into Melbourne he began working as a draftsman on odd jobs. Alex worked hard and saved a lot of money so that he could start his own property developing company. He was building homes in Melbourne when he met his wife. She encouraged the young man to change his last name from the Polish version, Tomkiewcz, to the English version, Tomkin.
Tomkin Homes grew to be a large and successful business, building homes in Melbourne, Sydney, and the U.S.A.
Alex and his wife had three children together who were born and raised in Australia.
Life in Australia was the polar opposite of life in the ghetto for Alex.
Two years ago, after his terrifying ordeal in the Warsaw ghetto Alex returned to Warsaw with his family.
Unbeknown by him he was actually staying in a hotel that was inside the perimeters of the old ghetto. After seeing a map of Warsaw during World War II in a Jewish museum, Alex realised he was staying a mere 300 metres from the building in which he had hidden as an eleven year-old.
How spooky is that! He exclaims with a laugh.
Alex is now 81 years-old and when I ask if he still has bad feelings towards the German officers during World War II he smiles and shakes his head.
“The Germans did horrendous things during the war to Jews, but not all Germans were bad. During those 8 long seconds [in the Ghetto] I found my Angel of life in the German officer who risked his own life to save mine.”