Halina Zylberman

Title: Swimming underwater
Author: Halina Zylberman
Publisher: Makor Jewish Community Library
Place of publication: Melbourne
Year of Publication: 2001
Location of Book: Rare Books Collection, Sir Louis Matheson Library, Monash University Clayton Campus
Cities/town/camps: Poland: KrakowWarsaw, Pionki, Kielce
Note: those cities/towns/camps underlined are those which are most central to the narrative

Halina Zylberman presents a gripping account of her family’s survival in WWII. The first 20 pages detail Halina’s family background in Krakow up until the beginnings of the German occupation. Pages 21-87 outline Halina’s life as a fugitive in Warsaw from 1942. Pages 88-120 recount Halina’s time in the German army in and around Pionki and Warsaw. The remainder of the book deals with her journey to freedom, from Pionki to Warsaw and finally Australia. There are also a number of photos and documents throughout the book. Halina claims she wrote the book because, “the people [who risked their lives to save us] and the experiences deserve their story to be told.” The book was published in 2001 in Melbourne by the Makor Library as part of its “Write Your Story” Collection.

Halina Zylberman (nee Neuberg) was born in Krakow in 1928. Her family ran a jewellery business and enjoyed a comfortable middle class lifestyle. They were an assimilated family, considering themselves Poles before Jews, and had many non Jewish friends. Following the German invasion of Warsaw, there is a two and a half year break in the narrative, Halina considering it too traumatic to write about. The story recommences in 1942 when Halina’s family managed to obtain papers identifying them as Christians. Their non-Jewish friends taught them Catholic prayers and rituals so they would not be caught out if interrogated. They moved to Warsaw where they hoped people would not recognise them. Halina and her mother appeared Aryan while her sister Stasia did not. Stasia separated from them for safety reasons, as did their father, owing to his circumcision, an obvious giveaway to his true identity. Stasia later disappeared with a man suspected of being a member of the German Secret Police. Halina’s father underwent a painful operation to reduce the appearance of his circumcision. This later proved to save his life during an interrogation by the Gestapo. Halina and her mother were constantly forced to move between friends or to new apartments.

During the Polish uprising Halina and her mother were captured by enemy soldiers. After begging for clemency they were given a job as cooks at a German army base. Her mother told the soldiers that Halina was thirteen, rather than sixteen, fearing the unwanted attention she might suffer from the soldiers. Eventually, with the help of a priest, they were released from their service in the German army. They survived in a Red Cross camp in Pionki until the withdrawal of the Germans. It was then that Halina received a letter from her father confirming that he had survived. Halina returned to her home town of Krakow and recommenced schooling. The family soon realised that there was no future for Jews in Poland and in 1948 they emigrated to Australia.

The book is divided into many concise chapters that deal with one or two specific events or memories, all of which are retold vividly. Dates are rarely mentioned but one familiar with the events of WWII can adequately reconstruct a chronology. Moving and beautifully written, Swimming Under Water is an eloquent tribute to the courage of one family and humanity of the people who helped them.