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Paula Biren

Film | Accession Number: 1996.166 | RG Number: RG-60.5001 | Film ID: 3105, 3106, 3107, 3108

Paula Biren was a young Jewish woman living in Łódź, Poland when the Germans invaded in 1939. She survived the Łódź ghetto and Auschwitz. In her interview with Claude Lanzmann, Biren describes the occupation of Łódź, ghettoization, the children's Aktion of September 1942, and her deportation to Auschwitz.

FILM ID 3105 -- Camera Rolls #1-4 -- 03:00:09 to
(03:00:09) Biren and Lanzmann are seated outdoors. Lanzmann begins the interview by asking her to start at the beginning, the moment the Germans entered Łódź, what her feelings were, and if she knew at that time what would be at stake. She says that they knew that the city would be invaded but that it was a surprise anyway. The city had prepared for an invasion earlier that summer and Biren was part of a group that helped dig anti-tank ditches. She describes the blackouts and planes flying over the city as well as the general feeling of panic.

(03:04:25) [CLIP 1 BEGINS] Lanzmann asks Biren if she had a premonition of the fate of the Jews. Biren says that they did have an idea because they listened to the radio broadcasts and knew what was happening to the Jews in Germany but that they hoped it wouldn't happen in Łódź. She talks about the antisemitism in Łódź, the surprise at the swift occupation of the city by the Germans, and the reaction of the city's Polish population once the Germans arrived. Biren notes the Polish reaction to the anti-Jewish decrees, the beatings of Jews, and the confiscation of Jewish property by their Polish neighbors. She recalls having to wear the yellow star and how she didn't want to wear it. She tells Lanzmann that the Germans could not identify who was and who was not Jewish, but that their Polish neighbors knew who the Jews were and often pointed them out to the Germans. Jews, particularly men, were publicly humiliated. She describes the beginning of food rationing and how Jews were pulled out of bread lines by the Germans and by Polish youth [CLIP 1 ENDS]. Sometimes the Poles were even worse than the Germans -- Biren says that she and a neighbor went to see a German commander and the commander ordered their Polish landlord to stop stealing from them.

(03:15:00) Biren describes the formation of the ghetto. Part of the city, equal to a slum, was partitioned off to form the ghetto. She says that each person was allotted a certain number of square feet to live in. She herself was involved in the assignment of living space.

(03:17:15) Lanzmann asks Biren if, even before the war, she felt connected or had a sense of belonging to the city's Jewish life. She replies that she felt very strongly both Jewish and Polish because this was the atmosphere in which she was raised. Her father was a secular Jew who worked for a Jewish newspaper and his family members were Bundists.

(03:19:07) Biren describes the move into the ghetto. She tells Lanzmann that it was an awful and chaotic ordeal and that they could not accept the fact that it was happening. Many Jews went into hiding or fled to Russia during this period. Biren says that she snuck out of the city with a cousin of hers to go to Warsaw to visit her aunt. She thought that things might be better there because Warsaw was an "open city." After a break in the footage, Biren says that in order to get out of Łódź she hid her star under her shawl and tried to pass as a non-Jew. However, when they arrived in Warsaw they found out things were just as bad there and came back to Łódź. Her family of four moved from a large apartment to a small room in the ghetto.

(03:25:02) Lanzmann asks her whether she had a feeling of solidarity with other Jews. Biren replies that there was no sense of community, that people tended to focus on their immediate families. She describes the function of the Judenrat before and after the arrival of the Germans.

(03:28:21) Biren describes her parents as very strong people but states that it was very painful to see them during this period because they seemed so helpless and didn't know what to do any more than she did. She also says that she was mad at them because she thought they should have known what to do and that she felt trapped by her family ties. She could not have left Łódź and left them there. She says that they used sleds to move their belongings into the ghetto because of the heavy snow. It was a sad procession but they would see many more sad processions by the end of the war.

FILM ID 3106 -- Camera Rolls #5-7 -- 04:00:06 to
(04:00:06) The interview has moved indoors. Biren talks about a Polish friend whose father had been captured by the Germans and probably killed. She states that Poles also suffered, but that the Gestapo would come and rob the Jews, how they were beaten, shamed, killed and how she witnessed people living in constant fear even to go into the streets. Lanzmann asks whether she thought the ghetto would protect her and she says that she did not feel this way. She had a fear of being killed which was overwhelming and always present.

(04:02:47) [CLIP 3 BEGINS] Biren describes the organization of the ghetto and Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski's role. She did not know Rumkowski before she entered the ghetto. Rumkowski seemed to take his job in the Judenrat seriously. She says that at first they all made jokes about the idea of a Jewish state but soon realized the situation was serious.

(04:05:05) Lanzmann asks her if she had felt that work meant survival and Biren says that she doesn't remember what she felt because she was so overwhelmed. She notes that the Germans used the confused state of the Jews as a weapon against them and that she didn't realize that people who were allegedly being sent to labor camps were in fact being sent to their deaths. Lanzmann asks her whether she knew at the time that people were being deported to their deaths. Biren says at first she didn't know, that she had suspicions, but by the end of 1941 or 1942 she knew. She says that by this time people were coming into Łódź from nearby small towns and that these people told them that people were being sent to Chelmno.

(04:08:02) Lanzmann asks whether Rumkowski knew what was going on. Biren replies that she thinks he knew. Lanzmann disagrees with Biren and suggests that Rumkowski probably knew quite well what was actually happening.

(04:08:39) They talk about the deportation of the children from Łódź. Biren says that the officials in charge told them that the children were being sent to a special camp to work. She says that this was the worst moment for her in the ghetto, when she heard the announcement that the children were to be deported.

(04:09:52) Lanzmann asks Biren to describe Rumkowski's speeches. Megaphones were set up to broadcast them, and while it was not mandatory to listen, people were naturally curious and would come out to watch. When asked about the atmosphere at these speeches, Biren says that there was often silence and a sense of numbness at first, which then gave way to crying and lamenting. Lanzmann asks if they cried during Rumkowski's speeches and Biren says yes, because the speeches usually meant bad news.

(04:13:09) Lanzmann asks Biren to describe Rumkowski's speech about the deportation of the children. Biren says that Rumkowski claimed to be agonized over the deportation, but he also said that the children would not be killed. Children under the age of nine were taken in September1942. Lanzmann asks her about the parents' reactions, and she says that overall they seemed to think it was a good thing, that the children would be better off. She herself had a sense of relief because her family didn't have any children that age so they would be safe. She says that she listened to some of the mothers and that at first they were upset but they eventually gave consent. She describes how a neighbor of hers, a woman from a little town outside Łódź, refused to give up her little girl. On the day of the deportation this woman told a German officer that she would not give up her child, that she would rather be shot. The German shot the woman and took the child [CLIP 3 ENDS].

(04:20:14) Biren describes the ghetto as "a tower of Babel." She describes how people came in and out of the ghetto. She often had direct contact with incoming transports because of her job distributiong living space. She says that many of the arriving German Jews were older, bewildered and unprepared, and they often ended up dying quickly in the ghetto. Biren talks further about the arrival of the foreign Jews and mutual perceptions between them and the ghetto inhabitants. (04:25:00) [CLIP 2 BEGINS] "It was like a zoo, it was animalistic. We lived, not a human life.... developed a numbness, a dreamlike state...the putting on of a shell. You hope you survive. You fight for survival." [CLIP 2 ENDS] (04:26:26) She describes the hunger and cold and how they had to make their own shoes from scraps. She says that their dignity was taken away. They were encircled by wire, the Germans were guarding them, and outside were the Poles who "didn't give a damn" about them. No one seemed to care about what happened to them.

(04:28:00) They discuss the use of ghetto currency. Biren says that they used it because they were totally cut off from the outside world with or without the currency. She talks about food smuggling and how some were privileged, but those were the people who were largely involved in the Jewish government. Corruption was terrible in the ghetto and the privileged had a better chance to survive. Lanzmann asks how the corruption was felt by the people. Biren uses work as an example. She says that those who had influence could get jobs so it was a form of corruption. When women were compelled to work, she was able to get a job for her mother. (04:30:24) "The worst corruption was about life." Who would be deported, or not. Inevitably it was those without influence."

FILM ID 3107 -- Camera Rolls #8-10 -- 01:00:00 to 01:33:23
(01:00:00) Lanzmann asks if Biren considered herself privileged. She says that she was, in a way. She describes the establishment of a school by Rumkowski for the junior and senior classes, which she was part of. He was a strong Zionist and created the school with the aim of preparing the youth for life in Palestine. Biren was involved in one of the groups who worked on a farm inside the ghetto. She describes how they took over an abandoned orphanage and helped a Jewish farmer manage a farm. She lived there and went to school to learn how to raise crops, milk goats etc.

(01:03:01) "It was a wonderful year." Biren says that she and the other students had enough to eat but were not allowed to take food back to their families. She felt guilty because her family was starving. She says that in her opinion Rumkowski cared for children. This school lasted for about a year before it closed in 1942.

(01:07:14) Biren says that she had various jobs including work in a factory making German military raincoats. She describes this as a horrible experience because it was hard work, they had bad supervisors (Jewish tailors), and they worked day and night. She describes it as an angry, tense situation. This job was given to the girls but the boys had other kinds of jobs. There is a long, awkward silence during which Biren refuses to talk about the kind of work the men did and won't allow Lanzmann to say what it was. This is consistent with her stance throughout the interview of firmly refusing to speak about experiences that were not her own.

(01:10:22) After her factory job, she was given a job in the women's police force organized by Rumkowski. As a side note Lanzmann says that the boys also had this type of job, but Biren, again, does not want to discuss this. She says the whole thing was comical, that it was her job to keep order in the street. Lanzmann asks what the purpose of a women's police force was. Biren says that it was to keep order, which was a problem because of the black market. It was her job to keep the moral order and keep the streets clear. When asked why women and not men did this job she says, "Don't ask me." Biren tells him that the chief of police was a Czech man and that she was an officer. She said that it was comical but she had to do the job so that she wouldn't be deported. She could not arrest people, just bring them into the police station. She also worked in the office in an administrative capacity. Some of the other girls rebelled and protested that the black market peddlers would be deported. She didn't like what she was doing but had to keep the job otherwise she would be deported. She notes that she didn't have the dilemma long because within a week the women's police force was disbanded.

(01:19:41) Lanzmann asks her whether she knew the feelings of the men of the Jewish police, if they felt guilty. Biren says that she doesn't know because they didn't talk about feelings. Lanzmann tells her that he tried to get former Jewish policemen from Łódź to talk about their experiences but they would not. She says that she doesn't know why she herself couldn't talk about it until recently, maybe it was guilt that she had done something wrong, that she didn't do enough, that she is alive and her family is not. She says that she feels she delivered them to the Germans, to Auschwitz. At the time she didn't feel that she had a choice but now she thinks that she did. Lanzmann tells her that she didn't have a choice, that it was either work for the Germans or commit suicide. (01:26:--) Biren notes that after the war, when she and others did want to talk, no one wanted to hear. "I clammed up...wouldn't talk."

(01:30:44) Lanzmann asks her if the police and Jewish administration enjoyed any privileges. She replies that she doesn't think it mattered but that she found it interesting that the people of Łódź, and the ghetto itself, were different from other places because it was the ghetto that was most cut off from the outside world, the most organized, and the longest lasting. She says that it also produced a higher degree of bitterness in survivors, and that there was no uprising in the Łódź ghetto.

FILM ID 3108 -- Camera Rolls #11-13 -- 02:00:10 to 02:27:47
(02:00:10) [CLIP 4 BEGINS] "We were talking about how I felt about the Judenrat [Jewish Council]." She says that she felt they were a tool for extermination because orders from the Germans came through them but that they were also a tool for survival and that's why the people of Łódź went along with them. "After all, the hope was, with orderly conduct..." But in the end, there was no choice. Circumstances didn't allow revolt. The Łódź ghetto was so hermetic.

(02:02:56) Lanzmann questions her about the hangings she witnessed and she tells him that they were used as a tool of death, that they were deadly fear made public. "If we're talking about tools, that was the biggest tool the Germans used." Catch someone for something minor, and make the punishment public. People were forced to watch, from offices, etc. She notes that she saw hangings on at least two occasions. "That was the tool: death." [CLIP 4 ENDS] (02:04:06) Lanzmann asks if the hangman was a Jew, and she says yes, whether forced or a volunteer she does not know.

(02:04:55) Lanzmann then asks her about the liquidation of the ghetto. She says that she was deported in August of 1944 when the order came for everyone to leave. [CLIP 5 BEGINS] When asked whether they went by consent or if they protested she says that she doesn't know, but that they went in a more or less orderly fashion. She says that the majority of the people generally felt that being transported to another camp would be good but that she personally felt that they would not survive. Biren says that Rumkowski made a list of people who would go to a special camp. Most of them were privileged people, and that all the graduates from his school were on this list, including her. She says that she asked her parents whether or not they should go and that they left the decision up to her. She decided that they would not go on this special transport. Instead she and her family tried to go into hiding but there was no place to hide. Only later, she says, did she learn that the transport went to Theresienstadt and that her family could possibly have survived if they had gone. She and her family were sent to Auschwitz [CLIP 5 ENDS]. She describes the immediate separation of her family at Auschwitz. Her mother went directly to the gas chamber and her father to a labor camp. She and her sister survived.

(02:11:19) Lanzmann asks her about the streets in the ghetto. Biren describes them as being very clean, no corpses lying around or anything like that, just hunger and cleanliness. He asks her about a gravediggers' strike but she says that she doesn't remember much.

(02:12:59) Biren talks about the sickness and the hunger, and says there was typhoid and dysentery in the ghetto but that it was always contained. Lanzmann asks her how it was possible to work all day when you are hungry and she replies that it was hard but that she was young. She says that at one point everyone had to work in order to buy food with the ghetto currency but that the black market still existed. Lanzmann asks her who organized the black market. She tells him that she doesn't know, but that it was probably those who worked at the food markets. There was bitterness towards those who were involved in the black-market. She says that camaraderie, love, and family were what kept one alive in the ghetto.

(02:19:26) Lanzmann asks Biren if, in retrospect, she understands the Holocaust or whether it remains a mystery to her. She says that it remains a mystery because she doesn't understand what happened or even why the Poles didn't want her when she came back from Auschwitz. She notes that pogroms started a year after she came back to Łódź and says that was why she left. He then asks her what her feelings towards Europe are. She says that she couldn't wait to get out and that's why she left Poland. Biren tells him how she went to Germany and attended medical school while she waited for a visa, noting how the whole experience was very demoralizing. She also tells him how she visited Europe recently and felt she belonged there; she considers Europe her home and it is painful to feel like she has been banned. At the end of the interview she tells Lanzmann that she can't explain the Polish antisemitism after the war and after all she had been through, even though she did not experience the 1946 pogrom. She says that she had the hope that she would return to Łódź and be welcomed but that was not the case so she has never returned to Poland. She says that she doesn't understand how someone can be banned she doesn't know what her crime was that caused her to be banned from Poland.

Event:  Winter 1978-1979
Production:  1985
Panama City, FL, United States
Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of USHMM and Yad Vashem
Record last modified: 2022-07-28 22:02:48
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