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.