You live with it all the time but don’t talk about. I thank God I’m in America – it is a beautiful country. I just pray it never happens again and that our children only know freedom.
It was a happy childhood in Cologne [Germany]. My father was a business man, in textiles. I had a brother, my mother, my aunts, grandmother. We were a happy family. I went to kindergarten in Cologne. My mother was into art, I was too small then.
Then in 1938, my grandparents were sent away to Poland. Within 24 hours, the Polish Jewish people had to put together their belongings. We had to put together an entire life’s worth. They were sent out of the country. No one survived. Not my grandparents or aunt or anyone from my father’s family. Everyone died.
My father, mother, younger brother and I were left in Cologne. Then in 1939, my mother had the courage to put my name and my brother’s name on our sweaters and put us on the first train leaving Germany. My mother gave me money [to purchase the tickets] and the Germans were so flabbergasted to see little children that they let us through. This was after Kristallnacht, we couldn’t be on the street and had to be in hiding. We had a good neighbor who was German, not Jewish, and she told my mother that they will kill us all. And that is what gave my mother the courage to send us out. This neighbor had relatives in the Gestapo who had given them warning.
My brother was seven years old and I was nine. There were four more children on the train. Six on the train, that train went to Belgium. We arrived scared, hungry, without our parents for the first time in our lives. We were in Brussels. The Red Cross took us, they asked two families to come and see if they wanted to take us. I had family there, I never knew, who came to pick us up in Charleroi (two hours from Brussels). I went with one family and my brother to another, so we were separated.
My mother asked us to send a letter to our German neighbor to let her know we were alive. My mother and father were already in hiding, they couldn’t go outside. That lady [neighbor] took something to them every night to eat. I told them we were alive and well. A few months later my parents were smuggled into Belgium. They had to pay everything that they had, they didn’t take anything. A German took them to the river, they had to swim across and the smuggler, a Jew, was waiting for them on the other side. They had to do it at night, they couldn’t be seen. This was 1939. My mother was pregnant at the time. September 12, 1939 my brother was born in Belgium. We were illegal, we hadn’t been declared, so no passports/ papers.
In 1940, the Germans started to occupy Belgium, so we ran away again to France. Once we were on our way to France it was terrible circumstances because the Germans bombarded the train. Everyone – Jewish and non – tried to get away. We walked three days and nights from Belgium to France, the Germans were in France on motorcycles and had guns and told us to turn around. We stopped in the fields and slept in farms. Then the Red Cross came to assist. My youngest brother was two months old, my mother didn’t have any milk to nurse. People were telling her to throw him away, but she wouldn’t. Then they took my father. People thought he was a spy because he only spoke German. The Germans took him and once returned, we had to wear the star and be registered.
In August 1942 they took my father away again, we were on the street walking. They grabbed him and took him away and I never saw him again. My mother chased after him. The next thing I knew I woke up and I was in a church. I had fainted. I was twelve, my brother Irving was ten, and my little brother was two.
That was the first time I saw a church; the priest was very nice. He told me he could take my little brothers to the orphanage, but he couldn’t take me because I was a girl. He gave me a piece of bread. We were all starving. In the middle of the night, Mother Superior said I can’t take your brothers in because I have 250 orphans. The nun explained that they were her responsibility and if [the Gestapo] found them, all would be killed. I begged the Mother Superior to take my brothers in and she took them, she had pity on me. My brothers cried and didn’t want to go without me, it was terrible. I went back to the house where we were living, I didn’t know if my mother would be there, but she was. She didn’t know where I was – I told her the boys were in the convent, but I didn’t know the name. It had been two weeks, we couldn’t go out, the neighbor who kept us couldn’t keep us anymore. I took a chance, I remembered where the church was and so my mother and I went at night. The priest took us back to the office – the Mother Superior took my mother to work in the kitchen, but she still couldn’t take me. My mother stayed where the girls were, but she was still separated from her sons. She went once a year to visit my brothers during Christmas.
This was a traumatizing time. The lady told me, she knew someone who would take me and that I would start cleaning. The woman who took me was so mean, she had an illegal business. She made hats, but on the other side she had a brothel. I had to clean all the bedrooms. I asked why she had so many bedrooms and she told me to mind my own business. I was so scared, she didn’t feed me. I was made to work, I was full of flies. She had a huge dog, I’m still afraid of dogs. She fed the dog, and when she wasn’t looking, I took the dog’s food. I was so hungry.
One day I couldn’t take it anymore – there was a man waiting for his “date,” I took up a tray of tray and food. He told me to come in and asked my age. I told him my age and gave him my name (that matched my false papers). He asked what I was doing in a house like this. He was Belgian. I told him the truth – I’m Jewish, I have nowhere to go. He gave me 50 francs. He took the bread off the tray and gave it to me. He told me to go down the stairs to the back door. Wait at night and you go to this address, he handed me a piece of paper. I went to his house and he took me to Mother Superior. She was mad I told a stranger, but I cried that I had nowhere to go. She finally took me in. The convent is Filles de la Croix (Daughters of the Cross) and I was in the House of St. Joseph.
I made a friend with a girl, Suzanne, who was the eldest of ten children. Her father had joined the army and left the mother and there was no such thing as welfare. The mother became a prostitute. Suzanne and her brothers were put in the same convent. Neither of us could tell why each other were there. She asked one day if my mother was running around too – we were the same age. When we were liberated, I did finally share that I was Jewish. We both saved each other, we were each other’s sanity – from 1942 to 1946.
They had twelve, thirteen little boys, some were orphans, some were taken away like juvenile delinquents, placed by the judge, and again others, when the parents were delinquents, the children stayed at the convent. I took care of the children during the day. I was thirteen. There was no food, we were always hungry, even the nuns. I was with them the whole day. I fantasized, what I made up, I told them. I told them what the world was like outside, like Alice in Wonderland. I was like a young mother to those children who didn’t have parents of their own or know the world. I had a feeling like I was not normal, I had to physically touch chairs to see if it was a chair. I had to ask why, why was my father taken? Why was my family taken? I was not allowed to talk to anyone, only to the children, because Mother Superior wanted to protect me, other than her no one know I was Jewish. I saw my mother once a year at Christmas.
After the liberation, Mother Superior, thought it was a shame I was fifteen and didn’t have an education. She knew I was smart, because once a week she let me go into the library to read and I taught myself the language. Keep in mind, from 1939 to 1942, I went to school in Belgium, where I learned French.
One day, Mother Superior took me downtown. I looked like an orphan, black stockings, black shoes, black dress, large coat. Took me to a priest and explained: here is a girl that I would do anything if you could teach her something. He said, well I have a rapport with a PG educator, the school of stenography and typing, your vocabulary has to be very good. But I’ll try, if she passes the test, I’ll take her. I passed the test, so every day for a year, I went. I became a stenographer at sixteen, but I had to lie and say I was eighteen because by then the Americans were in town and looking for secretaries. My mothers and brothers were still in the orphanage. They didn’t have anything to do, but I said not to worry, I will go out and get a job. I will support you. I can proudly say I did. I got the job with the Americans.
Mother Superior was a beautiful woman, she died. But she once said, when I die, I want some holy earth from Jerusalem. My mother didn’t forget this. The first thing she did when she arrived in Jerusalem was get holy earth, she went to the monastery and had it blessed. And she went back to Belgium and brought it to Mother Superior.
My youth was a lie – I had false papers, I had to lie to get a job. In 1947 I met my husband who was left alone from eight children. He came to Belgium because he didn’t want to stay in Germany. He was a refugee. My mother had opened a soup kitchen for all the refugees. We married and went to Israel, in 1949. Then my mother followed me.
Paulette, my girlfriend, her father was on the same train as my father, which went to Auschwitz. But Paulette’s father jumped off the train and survived. My father remained on the train.
My mother’s sisters, both survived. One came to America, one survived in Russia. We came to Buffalo in 1958 – nine years in Israel, all three of my children were born in Israel.
I do not tell my children these stories.