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Trap Door to a Hiding Place

Trap door to a hiding place used by Clara Kramer and several other Jews in Żółkiew, Poland.
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Clara Kramer was fourteen years old when German forces occupied her town of Żółkiew, Poland,1 in June 1941. Less than a year later, German authorities in Żółkiew deported 700 Jews to the Bełżec killing center. Terrified, Kramer and her family could not get false identity papers needed to escape the town, nor find any non-Jewish neighbors to hide them.2 Kramer’s father, Meir Schwarz, along with two of his business partners, Artek Patrontasch and Mechel Melman, decided to build a hiding space. They chose the area underneath a house belonging to the Melmans at 35 Lvivska Street.3

Small enough to crawl into a narrow opening, Kramer, her sister Mania, along with the Melman and Patrontasch children, dug out the space by hand.4 The ceiling was almost four feet tall, and the main living space was around 50 square meters at its largest. Artek Patrontasch created this trap door to fit like a jigsaw puzzle-piece into the flooring above in one of the bedrooms. When the trap door was closed, it was nearly invisible. Two metal handles could be used to open it from the inside.5

In November 1942, after German and Ukrainian police rounded up and deported 2,400 more Jews from Żółkiew to Bełżec, the Schwarz, Melman, and Patronasch families began hiding in the space.6 Valentine and Julia Beck and their daughter Ala—a Volksdeutsche (ethnic German) family—agreed to take over the house and hide them in exchange for money.7 Valentine and Julia slept in the bedroom above the trap door.8 Other Jews hid them over the next two years. Eventually, eighteen people lived in the hiding space, avoiding imprisonment in the Żółkiew ghetto and further deportations to killing centers.

For Clara, the trap door became a link to the outside world as well as an important subject in her diary and memoirs about life in hiding.9 She described how the door would be opened for fresh air at night, allowing the families to stand upright, or to speak with the Becks, who brought them food, water, and news. Facing extreme heat and cold, they survived on very limited supplies. Starting in the winter of 1944, German railway men and SS officers were stationed in the house. The families were forced to stay completely quiet. It became almost impossible to remove pails of waste and the space was without any running water or facilities. Kramer later likened moving into the hiding place to going into a grave.

On April 18, 1943, Kramer described in her diary something "I will remember until the day I die."10 Julia Beck knocked on the trap door to warn them of a house fire next door that threatened to spread to theirs. The families crawled to one side of the hiding place for more oxygen, still fearful of leaving the safety of the hiding place.11 However, Clara's sister Mania insisted on leaving. Two boys in the town quickly recognized and denounced her. She was captured and shot the same day by German authorities.

By the time Soviet troops liberated Żółkiew in July 1944, nearly all of the town's Jews had been murdered.12 However, aside from Kramer's sister, the inhabitants of the hiding place survived the Holocaust. Kramer saw sunlight for almost the first time in nearly two years. She recalled that the muscles in her legs had atrophied, she was emaciated, and had grey skin.13 In the 1990s, Kramer returned to the town, now part of Ukraine, with her family to see the house and the hiding place.14 She showed them the trap door and how to enter the space. In a 1997 oral history, she recounted how her husband, even after seeing the small, crude space, could not believe she had hidden in it for 20 months.15 Visiting the space and entering through the trap door gave him a physical insight into Kramer’s unlikely survival.

Clara Kramer donated her diary and other personal documents to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1994. Because she described the hiding place in such detail there and in her memoirs, the Museum sought to acquire the trap door—still in place at 35 Lvivska Street more than 70 years later. In 2017, the home's owner agreed to transfer it to the museum’s collections, along with a vent cover from the house.16 The trap door remains one the very few artifacts preserved from the structure of a hiding place used by Jews during the Holocaust.

At the start of World War II, the town of Żółkiew lay in eastern Poland, in a region known as Eastern Galicia. Under the terms of German-Soviet Pact, the area was occupied by the Soviet Union in fall of 1939 after the German invasion of Poland. Many Jews fled to the region, attempting to escape Nazi occupation in western Poland. The town was occupied by German forces following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Żółkiew is today known as Zhovkva and is located in the Ukraine. 

Clara Kramer with Stephen Glantz, Clara's War: One Girl's Story of Survival (HarperCollins, 2009, eBook), 52. The Jewish community of the town—which numbered 4,400 people in 1931—expanded to around 5,000 people as Jewish refugees from Western Poland came to the town. For more information on Żółkiew, see The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945, Vol II: Ghettos in German-Occupied Eastern Europe, Part A, edited by Geoffrey P. Megargee, Martin Dean, and Melvin Hecker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 852–853.

Hiding places used by Jews during the Holocaust were often called "bunkers." For more, see Natalia Aleksiun, "Daily Survival: Social History of Jews in Family Bunkers in Eastern Galicia," Lessons and Legacies 12, (2017): 30–31. Aleksiun finds that the location and construction of hiding spaces typically fell to men, while women often did domestic labor. See "Gender and the Daily Lives of Jews in Hiding in Eastern Galicia," Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues 27 (2014): 38–61.

Around this time, Kramer and her friends had their photographs taken. As she later explained in an oral history with the USC Shoah Foundation, they took the photos to preserve the memories of one another should they be separated. See the Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation, Clara Kramer, Interview 37123. See also Clara Kramer's papers at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum for examples of these photographs.

See Clara's War for diagrams of the layout of the bunker, and pages 100, 133, for dimensions of the space. Other recollections of hiding places include oral histories with Suse Gruenbaum Schwarz, Wilek William Loew, Tina Stobos, and Jerry von Halle.

They took only essentials, although Mrs. Melman brought a pitcher and other objects to "remind her of life upstairs." See Kramer, Clara's War, 69.

The families and others gave the Becks money to provide them with food. When the Schwarz family ran out of money, they sold Beck a portion of their business.

 

Julia Beck had been the three families' housekeeper. The Kramer family had known Valentine to be openly antisemitic, and yet he helped to hide them. In her USC oral history, Kramer recalls Beck saying he had wanted Jews out of Poland, "but not this way." Kramer later had Ala honored as Righteous Among the Nations. See the Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation, Clara Kramer, interview 37123.

Her mother asked her to keep the diary so that "people would know what happened to the Jews of Żółkiew," Kramer, Clara’s War, 181. In "A Note to the Reader" in Clara's War, which is based on Kramer's diary, she states that "although the events in this book happened over 60 years ago, they have never left me. As with many survivors, I relive them in the present." Kramer wrote in her diary with the same pencil for the entire time she was hidden and Beck provided her with school books in which to write. Kramer used the diary in the postwar period to prove to the Soviets that the Becks had saved her family. She donated the diary to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1994. See the US Holocaust Memorial Museum's Holocaust Encyclopedia for more on childrens' diaries during the Holocaust. See the Experiencing History collection on Holocaust Diaries for further analysis.

Kramer later wrote that every day she remembered her sister's death all over again, and this memory "seemed to devour the air around me as if her memory wanted to live so much it required air." See Kramer, Clara's War, 166.

Jews in hiding were constantly at risk of denunciation, extortion, blackmail, and other forms of abuse from civilian populations in occupied Europe. For more on the betrayal of Jews in hiding in German-occupied Poland, see Jan Grabowski, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).

The Nazis and their helpers murdered more than 90 percent of the 500,000 Jews in the region surrounding Żółkiew (Eastern Galicia) and only 52 from the town are thought to have survived. See Aleksiun, "Daily Survival," 320, and The US Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, Vol. II, 852853, for more details.

 

Kramer, Clara's War, 302.

 

Scholar Carol Ann Kidron has noted that visits like that Kramer took with her family to their hiding place have "the power of the site to disclose the sensual and emotional experience of survival." See Carol Ann Kidron, "Being There Together: Dark Family Tourism and the Emotive Experience of Co-Presence in the Holocaust Past," Annals of Tourism Research 41 (Apr. 2013), 175–94.

 

See the Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation, Clara Kramer, interview 37123. 

 

Following the war, very few Jews decided to return to the town of Żółkiew and the Jewish community was not rebuilt. Kramer and her family immigrated to Germany, where they lived in a Displaced Persons camp. Anxious to avoid falling under Soviet rule, they immigrated to Israel in 1948. Kramer later immigrated to the United States with her husband and children. She died at age 91 in 2018, shortly after the trap door was acquired by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Accession Number 2017.638.1
Date Created
1940 to 1942
Dimensions 30.500 inches (77.47 cm) - Width: 21.500 inches (54.61 cm) - Depth: 3.000 inches (7.62 cm)
Material Wood, metal.
Maker / Creator
Artek Patrontasch
Location
Żółkiew, Poland (historical)
Reference Location
Zhovkva, Ukraine
Object Type Equipment
How to Cite Museum Materials

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