David Bruce: Holocaust Stories

The Catholic family of Maria “Marysia” Andzelm hid Jews during the Holocaust, saving two lives. They did this even though Maria, at age 13, realized about the Nazis, “If they’re willing to kill Jews, they’re willing to kill people who hide Jews.” For a while after Germany invaded Poland, Jews who were hiding in the woods knocked on the door of the Andzelms’ home in Poland, begging for food. Although food was sometimes insufficient in their own home, the Andzelms gave away some of what they had. The Andzelms then began to hide two Jewish men in a hideout they built in their barn, although they had seen people’s corpses hanging in the street; on their corpses were signs saying, “FOR HIDING A JEW.” The hideout was hardly comfortable: farm animals’ urine and manure leaked into the hideout, and fleas infested the straw. Maria was able to get books for the two men in the hideout to help them forget the uncomfortable conditions for a while. To convince the person from whom she had borrowed the books that she had read them, Maria memorized something about each book. After the Holocaust ended, one of the hidden Jews, Moses Kershenbaum, married Maria. (The other hidden Jew was Srulik Schwarzfort.) Maria and her family had some frightening times with the Nazis. Once some Nazis came to take Maria away to help in the war effort, but Maria had jumped in bed and she pretended to be ill with a contagious disease, so the Nazis left her alone. Asked why Maria and her family had risked their lives to hide him and another Jew, Moses replied, “They are angels. You seldom find people like that.” Maria and her parents are Righteous Among the Nations, and their names are inscribed on the Wall of Honor.

During the Holocaust, Ruth Jacobsen was a hidden Jewish child in Holland. She spoke Dutch well and had blue eyes, and in some of the families she lived with she was allowed to go outside. Her parents, however, from whom she was separated, but very occasionally could visit, were not so fortunate. They had to stay indoors, and often knowledge of their existence was hidden from the children of the families they lived with so that the children would not accidentally reveal that Jews were hiding in their house. In one house, the attic her parents were hiding in was located above the room where the young children, who did not know of their existence, slept. Once, the young children heard noises coming from the attic, and so their mother invented the boogieman. When the children were naughty, she would tell them that the boogieman would come to get them unless they were good. She would then use the handle of a broom to hit the ceiling, and Ruth’s parents would stamp their feet on the floor. Following the end of the war, Ruth was reunited with her parents, but none of them had much clothing. Ruth attended a Catholic school, and the nuns wanted her to wear socks, but she had no socks. Therefore, the nuns had each student bring a ball of cotton yarn—in any color whatsoever—to school, and the nuns knitted multi-colored socks for young Ruth, who wrote as an adult, “The socks really stood out, and I loved them. After hiding for so long, standing out made me feel good. I was visible again.”

In Lvov, Ukraine, Luncia Gamzer hid in the home of a Gentile woman named Mrs. Szczygiel and her parents hid in the home of a Gentile man named Mr. Ojak during the Holocaust, but hiding Jews was dangerous. A Gentile who was found to be hiding Jews could end dead. This led to much tension among many of the Gentiles who were hiding Jews. Sometimes, the Gentiles had their own children whom they worried about. What would happen to the children if the parents were killed by the Nazis? Mrs. Szczygiel and her family worried about this because she was hiding Luncia. Even after her family decided—after narrowly being caught—that hiding Luncia was too dangerous, Mrs. Szczygiel kept on hiding her from the Nazis—and this time, from her husband and children. Unfortunately, one of her daughters discovered that Luncia was still being hidden in their home. Therefore, Mrs. Szczygiel took Luncia to the man who was hiding her parents and told him, “We can’t keep her any longer. You have to take her.” Mr. Ojak was completely surprised—he had no idea that he would be asked to hide another Jew. He hesitated a long time, and then he said, “She can stay. If I’m caught, it’s the same death for me whether I’m hiding two Jews or three.” Luncia had a joyous reunion with her parents. After surviving the Holocaust, the Gamzers came to live in the United States, where Luncia changed her name to Ruth and married a Holocaust survivor named Jack Gruener.

Markus Reich and his friend Stefan Schreiber escaped from a Nazi forced-labor camp that was under construction outside Tarnow, Poland, simply by picking up a heavy board when no guards were around and carrying it on their shoulders out of the camp. They kept on carrying the heavy board for more than 36 miles in bitter winter weather to their hometown: Bochnia. When they came to bridges, they found them guarded by Nazi soldiers, but the Nazis assumed that they were Polish workers and let them pass. In Bochnia, they parted and went to their own homes. Markus’ family had thought that he was dead, and they celebrated his return by making potato pancakes—a true celebration because food was so scarce.

Leo Baeck engaged in resistance during the Holocaust. The Nazis in Germany ordered the Jews to hand over all their silver, including religious objects made of silver. Unwilling to do this, Mr. Baeck took all his family silver, went to Hamburg, rowed to the middle of the Elbe River and dumped all of the silver overboard. One day, the Gestapo ordered him to appear at their headquarters on the Sabbath. He told them, “I’m not in the habit of showing up in an office on Saturday. On the Sabbath, I go to services.” He ended up in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, but survived the Holocaust.

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David Bruce: Holocaust

In 1939, British stockbroker Nicholas Winton prepared to go on a skiing vacation; however, a friend named Martin Blake called him and said, “I have a most interesting assignment, and I need your help. Don’t bother bringing your skis.” The assignment was to go to Prague, Czechoslavakia, and provide help in a refugee camp. There Mr. Winton learned of the plight of the refugees. He also decided to help as many of the children as he could. Mr. Winton said that at the refugee camp “the parents desperately wanted at least to get their children to safety when they couldn’t manage to get visas for the whole family. I began to realize what suffering there is when armies start to march.” Mr. Winton worked to save the children in the camp, arranging for their transport to Great Britain, where they would be placed in safe homes. He managed to save 669 children, mainly Jewish. To do so, he had to meet certain requirements. He said, “I decided to try to get permits to Britain for them. I found out that the conditions which were laid down for bringing in a child were chiefly that you had a family that was willing and able to look after the child, and £50, which was quite a large sum of money in those days, that was to be deposited at the Home Office. The situation was heartbreaking. Many of the refugees hadn’t the price of a meal. Some of the mothers tried desperately to get money to buy food for themselves and their children.” Little help was available. He pointed out, “Everybody in Prague said, ‘Look, there is no organization in Prague to deal with refugee children, nobody will let the children go on their own, but if you want to have a go, have a go.’ And I think there is nothing that can’t be done if it is fundamentally reasonable.” Mr. Winton left behind Trevor Chadwick and Bill Barazetti to look after things in Prague while he returned to England to find money and homes for the refugee children. He placed photographs of the children in newspapers, knowing that many people who saw the photographs would want to help the children. Between March 14, 1939, and August 2, 1939, children left Prague for Great Britain. Tragically in September 1939, 250 children were supposed to go to Great Britain, but Adolf Hitler invaded Poland and Great Britain declared war on Germany. No longer could trains travel to Great Britain through German-controlled territory. Mr. Winton said that “the train disappeared. None of the 250 children aboard was seen again. We had 250 families waiting at Liverpool Street that day in vain. If the train had been a day earlier, it would have come through. Not a single one of those children was heard of again, which is an awful feeling.” On September 4, 2009, 70 years after Mr. Winton’s rescue efforts, 22 of the children he helped save, now in their 70s and 80s, and members of their families visited him in London. Mr. Winton was then Sir Nicholas: On December 31, 2002, Queen Elizabeth II awarded Mr. Winton a knighthood for his services to humanity.At age 100, Sir Nicholas met the 22 survivors at the train station and shook hands with them. He said, “The trouble 70 years ago was getting them together with the people who were going to look after them. I’ve got no responsibility this time.” He wears a ring—a gift from one of the children he saved—on which is inscribed, “Save one life, save the world.” The 669 children he saved now have over 7,000 descendants.

Shoah, a 1985 movie, is an over-nine-hour-long witness to the Holocaust. Among the people appearing in the movie are Nazis, survivors, and bystanders. One person interviewed is the survivor Filip Muller, a Jew who watched other Jews walk into a gas chamber to die. He watched and listened as a group of Czech Jews sang two songs as they walked into the gas chamber. One song — “The Hatikvah” — affirmed that they were Jewish. The other song — the Czech national anthem — affirmed that they were Czech. Mr. Muller says, “They denied Hitler, who would have them be one but not the other.” Mr. Muller felt that he had no reason to go on living, so he went inside the gas chamber with them. However, a small group of women came over to him, and one woman said, “So you want to die. But that’s senseless. Your death won’t give us back our lives. That’s no way. You must get out of here alive, you must bear witness to our suffering and to the injustice done to us.” In his review of this movie — a Great Movie — Roger Ebert writes, “And that is the final message of this extraordinary film. It is not a documentary, not journalism, not propaganda, not political. It is an act of witness. In it, [filmmaker] Claude Lanzmann celebrates the priceless gift that sets man apart from animals and makes us human, and gives us hope: the ability for one generation to tell the next what it has learned.”

Following the end of World War II, Walter Ziffer searched for his mother, sisters, and cousin, and amazingly he discovered that they had also survived being imprisoned in a camp during the Holocaust. He made his way to their camp and waited for them. When they returned from an expedition to find food, he recognized them although they were much thinner and had suffered much. But they did not recognize him—he was much thinner and had suffered much and they thought that he had already died. He said, “Mama, don’t you recognize me?” Then his mother knew him and shouted, “I thought you were dead!” And Walter had the family reunion scene he had dreamed of.

“It is deeply shocking and incomprehensible to me that despite volumes of documentation and living witnesses who can attest to the horrors of the Holocaust, there are still those who would deny it.” — Mark Udall, U.S. Senator, Colorado, Democrat

“The Holocaust was the most evil crime ever committed.” — Stephen Ambrose

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David Bruce: Holocaust Heroes

Luba

The very first night Luba Tryszynska was in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in December of 1944 after spending time at Auschwitz, she thought she heard a voice crying, “Mama! Mama!” She investigated, going outside on a winter night, and heard the cries more clearly. They were coming from a field. In the field she found 54 children, some of them babies in pillowcases. The children were Dutch, and their parents had been diamond-cutters in Amsterdam. The children were separated from their parents, who were forced to work for the Nazis, and the children were supposed to be killed. However, the two men assigned to shoot the children could not do it, and they left them in the cold field. Luba took them to her barracks, where the other women greeted and comforted the children — and wondered how they could feed them. Nevertheless, they helped Luba to take care of the children during the months before the camp was liberated. Fortunately, Luba was able to get food for them. The Nazis thought that she was a nurse, and so she had special privileges. Since the Nazis in Bergen-Belsen did not know she was a Jew (perhaps because of the mix-up that made them think she was a nurse), she made sure that her long sleeves covered the tattooed numbers that identified her as a Jew, thus allowing the Nazis to think that she was a political prisoner. Her ability to speak both German and Russian also helped protect her. Because of her special privileges as a nurse, she had freedom to move around the camp, and she would ask cooks and bakers for food to feed the children. (Although the children’s existence was kept secret from the Nazis, many of the prisoners in the camp soon learned about the children.) She was able to hide the food under her coat and carry it to the barracks. The children were grateful to Luba, and for her birthday they wanted to give her a present. The price of the present was two loaves of bread, and they were able to get two loaves of bread by giving up one-half of their daily slice of bread for two days. The present they gave her was a red scarf. (Luba probably would have preferred that they eat the bread, as food was scarce, but she appreciated the gift — and the poem the children wrote to accompany it.) As the war wound down, food grew scarcer, but in April of 1945 the Nazis left and the British arrived. Luba and the children and all the surviving inmates of Bergen-Belsen were free. Of the 54 children whom Luba found, 52 survived the Holocaust. Luba accompanied the children back to Holland, where the children joined their surviving family members. Luba was a hero in Holland, and the Dutch called her “the Angel of Bergen-Belsen.” Queen Wilhelmina asked Luba to stay in Holland, but Luba went back to help other survivors and to try to find any surviving members of her family. Unable to find any surviving family members, she went to the United States and married Sol Frederick, who had also survived the Holocaust, and raised a family with him. In April of 1995, 40 years after liberation, the children she had saved — who were now middle-aged — flew her to Amsterdam so Queen Beatrix could present her with the Silver Medal of Honor for Humanitarian Services. Luba says, “I never thought of myself as a particularly brave person, certainly not as a hero. But I found that inside every human being there is a hero waiting to emerge. I never could have done what I did without the help of many heroes.”

When the Germans defeated France in World War II, lots of Jews went to Bordeaux, where they hoped to find passage away from France before the Nazis arrived and took them to concentration camps. The ship Kilissi arrived in port with a cargo of bananas, and the captain was astonished to see 600 people, all of whom were begging to be taken away before the Germans arrived. The captain of the Kilissi spoke to his crew, asking them whether they were willing to risk their lives in trying to save the Jews on shore. Every member of the crew was willing. The crew then dumped most of the bananas overboard, since they had no time to unload them. The Jews crowded on board, and the Kilissi started to sail them to freedom. Almost immediately, however, the ship’s engines stopped. Fortunately, the ship had stopped only to allow to get on board two men and one woman who were in a rowboat and screaming to get the ship’s attention. The ship took the Jews to Portugal, but authorities there would not allow them to disembark. However, they were allowed to get aboard a French warship that was going to Morocco. Terry Wolf was one of the 600 Jews saved by the captain and his crew. She calls him “a gallant man to whom the value of human life meant more than bananas, profit, comfort, and personal safety. Whenever his final voyage, I hope it is to Paradise.”

Alicia Jurman survived the Holocaust with much luck and determination. At a prison near Chortkov, Poland, she and other prisoners were given contaminated water to drink. She fell ill with typhoid fever and lapsed into a coma. When she woke up, she discovered that she was in the home of Jules and Sala Gold. They told her that she was now in the Jewish ghetto of Chortkov and that she had been in a coma for two weeks. The German prison guards had thought that Alicia was dead, and they had taken her out to be buried. They forced the Golds to bury Alicia and some other prisoners who were really dead. The Golds noticed that Alicia was still alive. They put her in a grave, but left an airhole so she could breathe. When the guards left, they dug her up, took her home, and nursed her back to consciousness. Much more, and much of it bad, happened to Alicia, but she survived the Holocaust, came to the United States, and married Gabriel Applebaum.

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David Bruce: Holocaust

PREBEN

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Preben Munch-Nielsen was 13 years old on April 9, 1940, when wave after wave of Nazi bombers flew over Denmark and dropped leaflets saying that German soldiers were going to occupy Denmark to protect its citizens from an Allied invasion. Of course, no one in Denmark had requested this “protection.” Preben, like other Danish students, detested the Nazi occupation of their country, and he, like other Danish students, began to distribute underground newspapers that were critical of the Nazis. In 1942, a Danish police officer named Thormod Larsen saw him secretly distributing the underground newspaper and said, “You realize that you can be arrested for having copies of an illegal newspaper and for distributing them.” Preben replied, “You can’t believe anything the regular newspapers say because they only print what the Nazis want. So we need to print the truth. Why should that be a crime?” Officer Thormod asked, “Is the truth worth you risking the wrath of the Nazis?” Preben answered, “Doing the right thing is always worth the risk, sir.” Preben was afraid that he would be arrested, but Officer Preben surprised him by smiling, taking one newspaper to read, and giving back to him the rest of the newspapers. Later, the Danes received word that the Nazis were going to start deporting all Danish Jews to concentration camps. Officer Thorson asked Preben, “Are you still delivering underground newspapers?” Preben admitted that he was, and Officer Thorson enlisted his help in saving Jews: “I have a job for you. There’s a Jewish family who needs our help. Within an hour they’ll arrive at the train station. Go there and meet them. Take them to Dr. Jorgen Gersfelt’s home.” Preben did that, and then he was ordered to the Snekkersten Inn, where he met members of the Elsinore Sewing Club. The purpose of the club was not sewing; instead, its purpose was saving Jews. Preben began delivering Jews first to safe houses and then to fishing boats that would take them to Sweden. This was dangerous work. The Nazis confiscated one Danish fishing boat because after it returned from a trip delivering Jews to Sweden, its fishing nets were dry. After that, Danish boats transferred Jews and dry nets to Swedish boats, and Swedish boats transferred fish and wet nets to Danish boats. Soon, Preben began making crossings on the fishing boat of Erling Kiaer. These heroes often paid a price for saving lives. Preben eventually had to go to Sweden to escape being arrested by the Nazis. The Nazis shot Officer Thorson, but he was taken to a hospital where he recovered. The Nazis captured Erling Kiaer on May 11, 1944, and they imprisoned and tortured him for nearly a year, but he lived to be free again. Erling Kiaer’s fishing boat is now on permanent display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. That fishing boat carried an estimated 1,400 refugees to Sweden. Why did Preben and other Danes act to save Denmark’s Jews, 99 percent of whom survived the Holocaust? Preben once said, “You can’t turn your back on people who need your help. It’s a matter of decency.”

During the Holocaust, Jews were sometimes able to escape being sent to concentration camps by hiding in the woods — and sometimes in caves. In the Ukraine, several Jews (mainly three families — the Stermers, the Dodyks, and the Kurzes) hid for months at a time in two separate caves. Some of the Jews left at night in order to get food and supplies, but some stayed underground the entire time. Esther Stermer and her family were among these Jews hiding from the Germans. She said to her oldest son, “We are not going to the ghetto. We are not going to go to the slaughterhouse. Go into the forest, find a hole, any hole, any place.” They did find a hole that led to a cave. Esther and most of the Jews survived, although they had to move from one cave to another after the Germans found them. Her strong spirit and the loyalty of her family and of the other Jewish families kept them alive in the worst times possible. After the Russian army arrived (the Russians and the Americans were among the Allies fighting the Germans), they left the cave. Pepkale Dodyk, who was one of the children in the cave, had forgotten about the sun, and because it was so bright, she asked her mother to put out the light. They entered a Displaced Persons camp. Eventually, the Stermers came to the United States, where Esther wrote a book in Yiddish about their survival. In 1973, the book, We Fight to Survive, was privately printed in English. In this book, she wrote, “The world had turned animal — or worse. Every day conditions became worse. Death stalked each step … But we were not surrendering to this fate. Our family in particular would not let the Germans have their way easily. We had vigor, ingenuity, and determination. Above all our family would stand together.”

Marion Pritchard helped save 150 Dutch Jewish adults and (mostly) children during the Holocaust. Once, she hid some children under some floorboards in her house while a Dutch police officer and three Nazis searched her house. After the men had left, she let the children out of their hiding place — and the tricky Dutch police officer returned, alone, and saw the children. She shot and killed him. Karel Poons, a Jewish ballet dancer, came to her aid. Despite the curfew, and although he might have been killed if he had been caught, he walked to the village and spoke to the baker, who agreed to come and remove the corpse of the slain Dutch police officer. Ms. Pritchard took an active role in saving Jewish children, and other people helped in smaller ways. Some people knew that other people were hiding Jewish children, but they kept quiet and did not turn them in. The man who delivered milk to her house guessed that she was hiding Jewish children, and every day he left her some extra milk.

“I told him that I did not believe that they could burn people in our age, that humanity would never tolerate it…” — Elie Wiesel (Night)

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HEROES

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