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Clara Kramer

"You crawl into the smallest hole because you want to survive."

Clara Kramer


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The right for which the person is committed


When in 1942 the SS rounded up and murdered the Jews in the small Polish town of Zolkiew, 15-year-old Clara also found her life in danger. Three families dig a hiding place under one of their houses in dire need. The German-born Becks promise to live in the house above the hiding place and to provide for the families. Clara, her family and two other families persecuted as Jews hide under the floorboards, barely an inch away from the noisy Nazis entering and leaving the house. From day one, Clara writes a diary and describes this barely imaginable life in a hole in the ground that demands superhuman strength from the persecuted.

The story

Clara Kramer

Unexpected Salvation

Clara Kramer was born in 1927 in Shovkwa, which today belongs to Ukraine. Her mother Salka (nicknamed "the Cossack") Schwarz, née Reizfeld, was a strong, supportive woman. Clara's father Meir Schwarz owned a small factory and provided for the family. Clara has a smaller sister, Mania. The family is part of the quite large Jewish community in Zolkiew and has close contact with the other members of the community.

In 1939 the Germans started the Second World War in Europe and in Poland, too, word quickly spread about how the Nazis treated Jews. After the Red Army has nothing more to oppose the Nazis, the small town of Zolkiew falls into the hands of the Germans. Together with her little sister Mania, Clara and her parents have to make themselves invisible in order not to be deported by the Nazis to one of the extermination camps.

The Melman and Patrontasch families, who also belong to the Jewish community, are in the same situation. In the greatest need they dig a hiding place under the house of the Melmans, which is the largest and hopefully offers space for all three families. Mr. Patrontash is an excellent carpenter and saws a floor hatch from the parquet floor of the bedroom. When the hatch was in place, it was impossible to find a seam, just like when opening a Chinese box. Since the men are too tall to squeeze through the hatch, the children, Clara and Mania, as well as Igo Melman and Klarunia Patrontasch, who are both eight years old, are pushed forward millimeter by millimeter through the narrow space. Their task was to dig a passage to the other end of the house, where a pit could then be dug to accommodate everyone. When the excavation work began, it was midsummer. The cellar is hot and there is no ventilation. The younger three children are digging in their underwear, but Clara is already fifteen years old and shameful. It doesn't help, she also has to take off her dress. For two weeks the children dig with their bare hands, then with cooking pans and shovels. In the light of the kerosene lamps they have to struggle for oxygen. When the cellar hole is finally finished, the children are proud and yet horrified. The hole has an area of three square metres and a height of one and a half metres. Not very much, considering that three families should live in it.

At the end of this summer the political situation becomes so serious that the families have to make friends with the idea of moving into the hole. But who would provide for them in the cellar? With water, food and information? Julia Beck, the housekeeper of Clara's family, and her husband Valtentin, a German-born Pole, have agreed to hide the three families. They want to move into the house of the Melmans and take the risk of hiding the fugitives.

The Becks of all people! Mr. Beck had such a bad reputation that he was supposed to be a drunkard, a philanderer, he kept losing his job and owed a lot of money that he never paid back. He said: "I wish for a Poland without Jews - but not like that. I have to do something if I want to look in the mirror." The parents discuss the consequences of entrusting themselves to the Becks. But there is no alternative. Everyone has to trust each other, there is no other choice.

In the winter of 1942, the night had come when they had to go underground. The families had assumed that the war would be over in a few weeks, so valuables were hidden in small cellar bunkers and only a few things were taken into hiding. Especially since now not only the three families were to live in the hiding place, but also seven other Jews who the Becks wanted to protect. In the end there were nineteen people in the cellar hiding place. The fact that they were all deceived and that they had to stay in the hiding place much longer than they thought connects the families. Clara starts writing a diary on her mother's advice. During the first weeks she fills the margins of her books with entries. No one knows at this time how important these diary entries will be, especially for the Becks. She writes everything down: Despair, little joys, whispered conversations with her younger sister Mania.

In the first time in the cellar rules have to be set up which make it possible to live together in the hole at all. For example, the hatch from the cellar to the daylight may only be opened by Mr. Patrontasch, since he is the only one who can do it noiselessly. Sleeping is done in shifts, otherwise there is not enough space. Over time, a kind of everyday life develops in the cellar. The Becks supply them with boiled potatoes and drinks, and also with news. 

They learn about the deportations of many friends to the death camps, which of course does not make the mood any better. And then comes this terrible day. Mr. Beck knocks, there is a fire outside. Everyone is hiding in the furthest corner. Only then do they realize that Mania has run outside. For two days they hope for their return. "But at the same time, I must admit, we were afraid that she would be caught and tortured and would betray us,' Clara said later. In truth, her sister was betrayed by a boy for two kilos of sugar.

Then something happens that no one has counted on. Mr. Beck and a hiding woman have an affair and when Mrs. Beck gets wind of it, there is a terrible marital row. Mrs. Beck and her daughter disappear, so that the fear is great that they could be betrayed by her now. Also the families in the basement had to starve now, because Mrs. Beck always provided them with food. But she comes back after three days, thank God. Again and again the people in hiding hear about the German soldiers who drink and celebrate with Mr. Beck. The fear of being discovered is enormous. New soldiers and officials march in and out of the house all the time. One false noise and they would be doomed to death.

In the summer of 1944 the Russians are there - finally freedom.

But Valentin Beck is arrested because he worked for the Germans. This is the time to return the Becks' help. Clara takes her diary and goes with it to the new authorities. "I told them: Maybe you don't understand Polish, but someone can translate that for you. Read my diary and you will know what these people have taken upon themselves for us". And indeed, Valentin Beck is released.

In the small town, out of 5000 Jews, only fifty had survived the National Socialist regime. Nothing now keeps Clara's family in Schowkwa, they set off for Palestine in 1946. On this journey through Austria to Germany Clara meets her future husband Sol Kramer. They dance together and fall in love. Sol wants to move to America with his family, but gets permission from his father to go to Palestine with Clara and her family. They marry and have their first child, Philip, in 1950. In 1954 Eli, the second son, is born. After ten years in Israel, the four decide to move to Sol's family in America. In 1957 the four arrive in Brooklyn.

During this time, the Becks died in the 1950s, separated from Clara by the Iron Curtain. But she is still in contact with the grandchildren of the Beck family. They visit each other again and again, even the cellar hiding place Clara could show to her husband and children.

In 1982 Clara Kramer took part in the founding of the Holocaust Resource Centre, which, in cooperation with Kean University, teaches the history of the Holocaust to 1200 teachers per year and trains them in how to break down prejudices and deal with the Nazi past.

Clara Kramer has dedicated her life to talking about the Holocaust and how she was rescued by people no one would have expected. She describes that anyone who acts humanly can become such a saviour and insists that something like the Holocaust must never happen again. Her audience includes the rectors of various universities, politicians, teachers and many students, but she particularly likes to speak to children. Today Clara Karmer is 91 years old. She still misses her little sister and will never forget the time that shaped her so much.

The diary Clara wrote during her time in the cellar hiding place is located in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. and can also be viewed on the internet.


Antonia Samm