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Lili Pohlmann

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
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Interview Summary:

Lili Pohlmann was born Lili Stern 1930 in Lvov, where her maternal grandparents lived. Her parents had wanted to emigrate to Palestine, but due to a problem with his knee, Lili’s father could not do agricultural work and became a bank manager in Krakow. Her mother excelled as a dress designer, having been trained by ORT. As a child, Lili loved spending time in the main park in Krakow with her younger brother Uriel, riding scooters, climbing trees and eating freshly baked bread and sausages with her father. She was first attended a Jewish Kindergarden and then to a Catholic Primary school. Lili has very good memories of early Krakow childhood – she recalls glorious skiing holidays in Zakopane and regularly visiting her grandparents in Lvov, especially over Passover. 

When the war started, Lili’s mother took her children to Lvov while her husband enrolled to fight in the Polish Army. After the hostilities, Lili recalls her father joining them in Lvov, so traumatised from post-traumatic stress that he was practically unrecognisable. 

Lili’s family were confined to the Lvov Ghetto. Only Lili and her mother survived. Their lives were saved thanks to the exceptional courage and humanity of two remarkable non-Jews: one was a German woman, a civil servant attached to the Nazi occupying forces in Lvov - her name was Irmgard Wieth and the other, a Ukrainian, the Greek-catholic, Archbishop Andrey Count Sheptytsky. 

On 29th March 1946 Lili arrived in London in the first of the three transports of Jewish children brought over from Poland by British Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, whose inexhaustible efforts to rescue the remnants of those children who survived gave them a new life and freedom in the UK. A year later Lili was joined in the UK by her mother. They were the only two survivors of an extended family of over 300.

Throughout her life Lili has dedicated herself to building bridges between the Polish - Jewish communities. Her passion for forgiveness and gratitude to the people who both persecuted and saved her, has made her a much sought after speaker, from schools to embassies. In 2007, her tireless work earned her one of Poland's highest accolades, The Commander's Cross of Polonia Restituta, awarded for extraordinary and distinguished service.

And I thought- “Whatever happens. If they shoot me, they shoot me. What can I do? What can I do?” I walked. And I come to a soldier standing guard. He doesn't see me. I walk past. The other one on the other side. Now I passed him. Now he’s going to shoot me from the back. I was convinced that he is going- one or the other is going to shoot me from the back. But they didn’t! Nothing! They didn’t see me. Isn’t that amazing?

And there we were [in the flat of a German lady, Irmgard Wieth]. I didn’t understand or speak a word of German at the time. My mother did. Very- she was very fluent in German. And so there we were. And she started- she had to share her… rations. Because we had nothing to eat. She was going to work and come back at six o’clock or so in the evening. And we had to sit and not move… the whole day long. Not- no toilet, nothing. Sit there, because… this was the house which was completely requisitioned for high SS Gestapo. That’s all. Plus… one family which was the- who was the head of the Ukrainian police. And he was immediately underneath us. Immediately. So we mustn’t move because everybody knew that

..the mother superior [Mother Iosefa] took us in. Very lovely. And she said to my mother, “You will stay with me.” She spoke- spoke Polish to her. My mother could not learn one word of Ukrainian. She spoke German, she spoke English- some, she spoke some French. Ukrainian she could not: impossible. She couldn't learn it. It was like a psychological- you know. “And you Lili, you’ll be Lydia, Litka…” and so on. “You will stay…” and there was the orphanage just with the- attached to it. And that’s how it was. And we stayed there until the Russians came again in 1944. And we felt, I mean, I felt quite safe there

I can tell you a lot about Doctor Schonfeld. Not a little bit. He was marvellous. He was wonderful. He was glorious. He was all the things that you can put. All the wonderful adjectives to one man. That’s all he was. Plus being incredibly clever and incredibly brave. ... You want me to smile? Tell me Rabbi Schonfeld, then I smile. Yeah. He was marvellous. He was- to us, he was a god. A god came and took us out. And he really did. He did the most amazing things in order to get those children out. Because it was certainly not easy, to say the least. But apart from anything else- apart from where to get the money for it. Apart from arranging all the- all the things that go with it. All the bureaucracy that goes with it. But, he had to get the children out from convents. He had to get the children out from non-Jewish families who were… hiding them, protecting them. Looking after them. And very often these children became like their own family. When they came and they were very little, they almost forgot who they were.

When we came on the plane and I saw Krakow underneath, you know… I started crying. I started crying uncontrollably. It was- it was something which- not that I wanted to, no, it was something absolutely… I, I can’t explain it. And when I got out of the plane, I could not stop crying. I could not- they were waiting with flowers, with this. I couldn’t stop crying. And the husband thought that they were- or they thought that they were going to do some- something nice for me, so they- to take us to the hotel via the street where I lived before the war. And the house- we were to pass the house. It was awful, because I could not stop crying. And I’m not a crying person. Really not. But I couldn’t stop

my mother… suffered all life long afterwards. All life long. And to her, it was a constant thing. “My little boy, my little Ulrich [Uriel], my little boy-” when she saw a child that age. And he would have been now sixty or fifty or what- “My little boy.” You know. Until her last breath she spoke about her little boy.


@ AJR Refugee Voices 2020

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