'These were terrible times': the true story behind In Darkness
by Stephen Applebaum
Krystyna Chiger, the last surviving member of a group of Jews who survived the Holocaust by hiding in the sewers of Lvov for 14 months, says Agnieszka Holland's dramatisation rings true
"I was young but I saw everything," says Krystyna Chiger, "and my experience has stayed with me my whole life. I remember every detail – everything – because it lives with me."
As a Jewish girl growing up in Lvov, Poland, Chiger experienced the Nazi occupation of her city and the ghettoisation, humiliation, and brutalisation of her people. Each day brought new terrors, until finally the ghetto was liquidated in a burst of breathtaking violence.
Chiger and her family escaped with other Jews into the city's sewer, and – with the help of a Catholic sewer worker, Leopold Socha – survived there for 14 months. Their incredible story is now the subject of Agnieszka Holland's Oscar-nominated Holocaust drama, In Darkness.
Today a retired dentist and author of the memoir The Girl in the Green Sweater, Chiger heard about the movie only after filming was completed, because Holland had thought everyone was dead. As the last survivor, she's disappointed. But she has no qualms about the film's authenticity. "It is very, very realistic," she says. "Agnieszka did it without any beautification or exaggeration. She did it like it was."
Chiger had already witnessed many horrors by the time she went underground, during days laced with fear. When her parents went out to work, she stayed at home alone with her younger brother, Pawel; their lives were in her hands. "I was five, and I was as mature as a grown-up person," she says.
How did they survive?
"You become like an animal. You go by instinct. I learned to recognise footsteps: I knew this is German or this is Jewish or this is Ukranian.
"Sometimes, when I recognised the footsteps of Germans, I packed Pawel into a suitcase and pushed it under the bed, and then I hid behind a robe my mother left hanging in the corner. For me, these were terrible times."
Her father was skilled at finding hiding places for his offspring. Even so, Chiger says she was unaware that he and some other men were planning to conceal them in the sewer. "When they didn't want me to know something, they spoke Yiddish so I would not understand," she laughs. "Only when the liquidation came, that night, did I know."
As terrified screams and gunfire filled the air outside, Chiger stood trembling at the mouth of a tunnel leading into the miasmic blackness beneath the city. "I will never forget, I was so scared. I didn't want to jump and I was crying. Then somebody at the back, I think my mother, pushed me. My father was down already and he caught me."
She remembers weeping as he led her by the hand to the living space the men had cleared. "I kept asking: 'How long? How long?' … The darkness, the noise of falling water, this was a terrible moment."
The siblings contracted dysentry, which lasted for the first few weeks, but eventually adapted to their environment – just as they'd had to do above ground – in order to survive. "The things we were mostly battling were the rats, but the surroundings were terrible: the smell, the dirt, the worms on the walls; it was unbelievable."
Socha, a deeply religious reformed petty thief, was paid to bring the group provisions. When the money ran out, he considered abandoning them. However, he changed his mind and continued to risk his life, and the lives of his family, for free. Chiger still doesn't know why.
"This is a question that I am sometimes asking myself. He was an orphan, he didn't have a nice life when he was young, maybe something moved in him. My mother used to say that he was an angel that was sent by God to save us."
This belief was strengthened by the nature of Socha's death in May 1945. Soon after achieving his dream of buying a bar, he was killed by a Russian army truck while out cycling with his daughter. "The people who were witnesses, they said his blood was spilling into the sewer. For us this is very symbolic, and this is why my mother felt the way she did."
Chiger will never forget him. "In my eyes he's like my father," she says. "I feel for him this way." Poles, she believes, see him as a kind of light at the end of the tunnel: a Pole who selflessly helped a group of Jews when so many collaborated in their destruction. She suspects this is why her book was a big seller in Poland: it was about "something good somebody did".
She hopes the film will bring Socha to a wider public, and that it will help in preventing the horrors of the Holocaust from becoming just a distant memory. She'd also like it to encourage people, especially the young, not to give up too quickly in tough times.
"If my father had given up, I wouldn't be here. He was always looking for safe places, and if this way didn't work, then he tried that way. And this is why you stay alive."
First published in the Guardian