When Krystyna Chiger emerged on July 27, 1944, from the sewers of Lvov, Poland, after hiding from Nazis for 14 months, little did she know that nearly seven decades later, her harrowing story would be told on screens all over the world.
"In Darkness," directed by Agnieszka Holland and opening today, recounts the saga of a group of Jews who hid in the sewers of Lvov (now in Ukraine) during the Holocaust. Chiger, a Port Washington resident, is the only surviving member of that group, which started with 20 people and dwindled to 10. She was 8 when her family -- parents and a 4-year-old brother -- descended below ground. Nobody fathomed they would not see daylight again for more than a year.
Aiding them was a Polish sewage worker named Leopold Socha: In exchange for money, Socha hid them and brought food. When money ran out, however, he kept coming. "He realized that he holds in his hands 10 Jews' lives, and he decided to continue," Chiger, 76, says. "It was such a humanitarian gesture."
The hiding spot was tiny. Walking was not an option, only sitting or lying down. The space teemed with rats. Thick air made breathing difficult -- not that one cared to smell the sewer. Yet, as removed from society as the group was, they were also quite close. "It was not very far from the church, and every Sunday we could hear the music," Chiger remembers. "We could hear people talking, kids running and laughing."
One of Chiger's worst memories is the day the sewers filled with water from a flash flood. "We all thought that we would drown," Chiger recalls. "This moment stays with me forever. Sometimes I have dreams that I am running from the water, and I can't move."
When Chiger and her companions finally climbed out of a manhole following Lvov's liberation in the summer of 1944, "I realized that some people were standing around watching us. We looked like creatures from Mars."
In 1957, Chiger immigrated to Israel and married her husband. They moved to New York City, where Chiger opened a dental practice, and eventually landed in Port Washington.
Chiger has seen "In Darkness" twice, each time racked with emotion and each time vowing to never watch it again. Her ordeal is hardly a taboo subject, though. In 2008, she published a memoir, "The Girl in the Green Sweater." (The movie is not adapted from the book.)
" pushed me to write it," Chiger says. "They said, 'You should write it because it will survive, and the next generation will be able to read and learn something.'"