What America means to a Holocaust survivor

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    Aug 02, 2011 6:10 PM GMT
    My latest blog post:

    Dinner With Bubbie
    Learning What America Means to a Holocaust Survivor

    I met Lili a couple of weeks ago in Philadelphia. Her grandson, Josh, introduced us. Lili – known as Bubbie to her grandsons – is a naturalized American citizen. She was born in Poland, and came here at the age of 15. She spent the years prior to her arrival in America as a prisoner in Auschwitz.

    As we sat for dinner at a loud diner you would not have been able to guess the horrors Bubbie endured as a child. She radiates kindness, and her smile is full of life. She finds joy in the accomplishments of her grandsons, and immense pride in her American citizenship.

    “I became a citizen in 1950,” she told me. “I just went down to City Hall [in Philadelphia] and a judge swore me in. When he told me I was an American citizen, I was so happy. I held on to my certificate, and for the first time in years, I felt safe.”

    Bubbie was pregnant with her first child when she became a citizen. She was anxious because she worried that if she wasn’t a citizen, her baby wouldn’t be one either. Her husband was a native-born American, and she had been a permanent resident for five years, but those facts did nothing to ease her fears.

    “What did I know back then about the law?” she said. “I was just afraid. I was so afraid that they would send me back to Poland, and that my baby would have to come with me.” Being able to officially call herself an American was the only thing that would ease her mind.

    Bubbie’s fear of returning to Poland expressed itself in another interesting way. When she arrived in the U.S. she did not speak a word of English. Within five months, she had completely forgotten her native Polish. “My mind just blocked it,” she told me. “It’s my native language, and within five months I could not speak a word of it.”

    I’m sure it’s better that way. As it is, Bubbie has had to live with memories anyone would want to forget. God only knows what’s behind the vault to which the Polish language might be the key.

    Bubbie shared her memories for the first time when her grandsons asked her to give a talk at their school. “I did it for them,” she told me. “They asked me to do it, and so I did it.” Since then, she has talked at other schools and universities, but it is always a difficult experience. “It drains me,” she said. “I get home, and it takes me days to get over it, to go back to normal.”

    I thought it best not to pain Bubbie with recollection, so our talk centered mostly on the topic of being American, and her life after she arrived here. To fill in the gaps, I asked her grandson to share with me the speech she gives about her experience during the Holocaust.

    Bubbie grew up in Sosnowiec, near the German border. It was one of the first cities occupied by the Germans. “At the time, I was nine years old, an only child of a prominent and wealthy family,” she wrote. “We owned a cigarette factory and an apartment building. I went to a private school, played with other children, played with my dolls, and read lots of books. We had no television and children were unaware of the political situation. I knew nothing of wars and little did I know what this monster, Hitler, had in mind for us.”

    Soon, Bubbie was forced to leave school. Her parents arranged for private tutoring at a Jewish teacher’s home, but she and her classmates (about 10 in total) had to go there secretly. One day, some two years later, the teacher was discovered by the Nazis and she disappeared.

    Meanwhile, at home, things got crowded. The Nazis brought a family of German Jews to live at Bubbie’s apartment. “We were happy to receive black bread and potatoes,” she remembers. “My grandmother concocted various ways to make potatoes so we would feel like we were eating something special.” Eventually, rumors of labor camps began to spread, and they “noticed some of [their] people were slowly disappearing never to be seen again.”

    Bubbie’s mother escaped to Warsaw using false papers to pose as a Christian. She hoped to send for Bubbie and her father, but she died in the ghetto uprising of 1942. Around that time, Bubbie, her father and grandparents were taken to a farm house by a man who said he could keep them safe. They lived in constant fear.

    “One night,” says Bubbie, “there was a knock at the door, and we all jumped with fright. In marched several Nazi storm troopers. They insisted my father leave with them to a labor camp. My grandmother threw herself at the officers’ feet, begging them to take her instead. She cried, ‘Take me, take me, I am old, he is young, he has a child here, let him stay!’ The officer kicked her in the face and took my father away. I cried and cried and I never saw my father again.” Later a family friend would tell her that her father was put to death in a gas chamber at the Buchenwald concentration camp.

    After her father’s kidnapping, Bubbie, her grandparents, an uncle, an old rabbi and his family went into hiding in a cellar. But they were discovered. It is hard for me to even picture what the sweet-natured woman I met saw that morning at the age of 12. “They dragged us out into the yard, and lined us up by the wall. They dragged the rabbi by his beard and made him pray, and one by one, they shot everyone except me.”

    And that was just the beginning. She spent the next three years at the now infamous camp in southern Poland, living amid gas chambers and ovens, where the remains of those murdered were burned. Her forearm still bears the number tattooed onto her skin by the Nazis. Unconsciously, perhaps, she puts a hand over it when talking about the past.

    Bubbie is one of the proudest Americans I have met. But life here wasn’t always easy. She spent her first few years here going from family to family in the foster care system. One of those families had an apartment in Atlantic City. “The ground floor of the building housed a burlesque show,” she told her grandson and me during dinner. “The family’s daughter, who was 10, made me take her. ‘If you don’t take me,’ she said, ‘my parents will send you back to Poland.’ So I went. I saw everything. And I was bored. The comics, they were so stupid, and so boring.”

    She met good people during that time too. One of them was a teacher named Ms. Whitney. She took Bubbie to a place where they tried to remove her tattoo, but the process was very painful, so she gave it up.

    “I am happy for my children and grandchildren because they are able to take so many things for granted,” she said to me when her grandson got up to use the restroom. “But I will never take anything for granted, because I know what evil is out there.” For Bubbie, who was unjustly imprisoned, “America is freedom.” And when you consider that it is in some ways a miracle she survived the ordeals of her early life, it is no wonder she would add that “it is also safety – here I feel safe.” She ended our conversation saying “I am so proud to be an American. I am so proud to live here. I would never want to live anywhere else.”

    As for myself, I felt both proud and humbled when she put her arm in mine to walk back to the car.

    Constantino Diaz-Duran is a fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University. He is chronicling his walk from New York to Los Angeles to celebrate his eligibility for American citizenship. Follow Constantino’s progress.
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    Aug 02, 2011 10:11 PM GMT
    Thanks for sharing this story. As the number of survivors continues to dwindle from year to year, the opportunity to meet them and hear their stories becomes rarer. There are videotaped testimonies (avoid those by Spielberg), but that’s never the same as meeting the people.

    My grandfather was also taken to Buchenwald and Treblinka but managed to escape. He died before I was born, but my dad relates that he came back a broken man and never spoke of his experiences.

    Josh may want to go over some of the details with Bubbie (or his parents) to make sure he got them right. For example, if his great-grandmother was in Warsaw – passing as a Christian (and trying to get papers for the family) – she wouldn’t have been in the ghetto. No Polish citizens were killed during that April, 1943 uprising, with maybe a few hundred Germans and scores of thousands of Jews killed.

    There was a later Warsaw Uprising by the Polish Resistance (August, 1944) , so she could have died at that time. By then, however, the Sosnowiec ghetto had been liquidated and Bubbie would have already been at Auschwitz (actually, the adjacent camp of Birkenau). So I’m thinking it had to have been earlier.

    Perhaps she died during the Jewish uprising in Sosnowiec, 68 years ago today?

    The arrest of just Bubbie’s father must have happened early. By mid-1942 the ghetto was in place and the entire family would have been transferred there – later to be deported to Auschwitz. This would also explain why he was taken to Buchenwald rather than to Auschwitz. While he may well have died there, Buchenwald was not equipped with a gas chamber. Alternatively he may have been transferred from there to a death camp. The information may be available from the Yad Vashem database:


    My grandfather was also arrested very early, so at first I wondered if maybe the two of them met. I don’t think that would have been possible. Bubbie’s father couldn’t have been arrested before September 1939 (when Poland was invaded) whereas by then my grandfather (arrested after the anschluss in March of 1938 ) was relatively safe in Tel Aviv.

    If these stories are of interest to you and you’d like to meet survivors, contact the Hillel chapter at your local university. I know in Ann Arbor they put on an annual luncheon. The one I attended earlier this year had one or two survivors per table seated with 6-7 students. It was serious, but a good time was had by all.
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    Aug 03, 2011 2:42 AM GMT
    Wow. Thank you for sharing all this information. It's very interesting. The document I quoted from was actually written by Bubbie, not her grandson. He just gave me a copy (with her permission). It may well be that she doesn't remember all the dates right.

    What I found so remarkable about her was her ability to remain whole. Talking about this stuff pains her, and, well, she did forget her native language. But there is no bitterness about her. She is, like I said ib the story, full of life and kindness.

    Her son, my friend's uncle, and the baby with whom she was pregnant at the time of her naturalization, is gay. She accepted him from the moment he came out. And she loves his partner of 30 years. We talked about this too--the fact that most people of her generation had a great deal of trouble accepting their gay children. She says simply that what she went through taught her not to be prejudiced. She loves her son and she would have never thought of turning her back on him.
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    Aug 03, 2011 4:07 AM GMT
    I remember in my early teens my father worked at Kawneer Door Company and his new work partner was a Polish jew. once he felt comfortable with my father he started telling his stories from being in a Prison Work Camp and of course dad would tell us during dinner.

    This man lost his wife, parents and all his siblings in prison camps. He was separated from all of them and he told dad that the only thing that saved him was that he had been a renowned concert violin player before the war, so once the guards found out about his music talents they seemed to favor him so he could provide the germans with music.

    After getting to know dad for more than a year this dear older man broke down and told dad about some of the severe beatings he had been subjected to prior to his more favored status. I guess he told dad because he was starting to have health problems from those beating and he took off his shirt to show the scars. My dad was pretty shook up over it as I remember. This man died a year or so later and we always understood that his death was due to his mistreatment. This man would get tears in his eyes when talking of his appreciation for his life in the US. There are few left now and these stories need to be preserved because we are not far from losing all of these survivors.

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    Aug 05, 2011 1:19 PM GMT
    Speaking of the dwindling number of living survivors:

    Last homosexual Holocaust survivor dies at 98