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Roma Ligocka: The girl in the red coat in “Schindler’s List”

Roma Ligocka at the book fair in Kraków, 2004.
Roma Ligocka at the book fair in Kraków, 2004.

Roma was born in Kraków on 13 November 1938 to her Jewish parents Teofila (née Abrahamer) and David Liebling. Not yet two years old, she was uprooted to the Kraków Ghetto where she was to spend the defining years of her earliest childhood. In her small red coat, Roma was the only spot of colour in the cold, grey ghetto, and was lovingly called “little strawberry” by her friends and family. The living conditions in the apartment that the family has to share with several other inhabitants were unbearable There was no space, no food and it stank. Whilst sure in the knowledge that there was a life outside the ghetto, the three-year-old did not understand why her life was now marked by hunger, poverty and fear,  How could she. As a “hidden” child, the only things she knew were misery and the daily fear of the German soldiers in the ghetto:

“They shout, we obey. Anyone who does not obey is killed.”

The terror inflicted on the inhabitants of the ghetto escalated, more and more people were deported:

“We keep waiting - for nothing. We wait day and night. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring. We are sorted out; we are continuously sorted out like merchandise. Street by street, house by house, we are ringed in more and more. (…) People go and simply do not come back again. You have only just got used to a face, and then it is gone again.”

First, Roma’s grandmother is deported to a concentration camp, then later her father as well. Finally, mother and daughter managed to flee from the ghetto. Harbouring forged documents, they hid with a Polish family from March 1943 until the end of the war, and this is how they managed to avoid being deported to the extermination camp:

“I spent my whole childhood with the Kierniks on my tiptoes, that’s how it seems to me today. There were dolls and theatre plays, books, music, pens and paper, and something like a home; even if none of it belonged to me. It was a borrowed life, a borrowed childhood with a borrowed family (…) After that, my childhood was over.”

At the end of the war, Roma was six years old. Over the coming weeks, the few survivors from their circle of friends and acquaintances gradually found their way back together in Kraków. Little Roma was faced with the psychological stress of her environment which, as a child, she did not really know how to classify or process:

“I have the grown-ups’ stories in my ear always and I can never forget them. Covering my ears, crawling under the bed or pulling the cover over my head - none of it helped. There was no escape, no mercy for us children. We were unwilling witnesses of those who bore witness.”

The survivors of the concentration camp seemed to her as if they had gone mad. She did not recognise her father who survived the Plaszów and Auschwitz concentration camps and returned to Kraków. Her closest confidante during this time is her mother. She made friends with Ryszard Horowitz, who was the same age, and her cousin Roman Polański, who was six years older, with whom she went on adventures through the city. Slowly Roma and the other survivors settled in to a life in the post-war period: Roma went to school and completed her school-leaving exam before studying painting and stage design at the renowned Akademia Sztuk Pięknych im. Jana Matejki in Kraków. But the trauma of her early years would stay with her for the rest of her life.