NEW YORK – Emily Kessler, now 97, still remembers crawling through the snow in the dead of winter in Ukraine with her two-year-old son on her back, desperate to escape the policemen and snipers hunting her. On Purim this year, Kessler recounted her Holocaust story to Marlowe Dalton, 12, who had decided – for her bat mitzva project – to learn about the Holocaust firsthand from survivors on the holiday when Jews celebrate their first major escape from annihilation.
Born in 1917, Kessler was originally from the small town of Khmilnyk in western Ukraine, which was captured by the Germans on July 16, 1941. Kessler was 24 in January 1942 when the Nazis and Ukrainian police came for her family. Her brother, who was in a wheelchair, was shot on sight when the SS entered their home, as were her mother and father. Kessler and the other Jews of her town were marched to the death pits in the forest on the edge of town. As the police herded people of groups up to the edge of the pit to be shot, a German officer saw Kessler’s blonde hair in the mass of hundreds of darkhaired Jews, and asked her whether she was Jewish.
Thinking fast and cradling her son, Kessler told Dalton she replied in German, “No I am not Jewish.” The German let her go, but as she was leaving, the Ukrainian police officer who knew her turned her back toward the pit. The German, confused, let her go again, and this time Kessler dropped to all fours and crawled through the snowy forest with her son tucked into the back of her shirt.
Over the course of two Fridays, January 9 and January 16, 1942, 11,760 Jews from the town of Khmilnyk were shot and killed.
Kessler ended up in a labor camp for the last two years of the war, she said, sleeping on the floor with no bed.
“I was worse than an animal in that condition, and I survived,” Kessler, who is remarkably sharp for 97, told Dalton and her father, Mark, in her small one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side on Saturday.
“Sometimes I have such depression, but I try and fight. I have a life and lot of friends. But I always ask: Can there be a Holocaust again?” The bat mitzva girl and her father volunteered to help deliver special “Purim baskets” put together by Temple Emanu-el to senior citizens.
The Purim baskets, or mishloach manot, were created by Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan for Holocaust survivors, such as Emily, who receive financial assistance from The Blue Card, a national organization that provides financial assistance to needy Holocaust survivors living near the US poverty line.
Dalton decided she would specifically try to visit Holocaust survivors to hear their stories. In total, she said, she visited four survivors.
“We can’t forget about it because it was a bad time that lasted a long time,” Dalton said in response to a question about why she chose this as her bat mitzva project.
“It could prevent another!” Kessler interjected. “That’s what I want to hear from you.
I don’t want to think that this could happen again.”
“I don’t think it could happen again,” said Dalton.
“It could!” Kessler insisted.
“There are deniers out there, they are the worst anti-Semites. It’s very scary for me to think what could happen.”
The Purim basket Dalton and her father delivered consisted of a noise maker, several fruit and yogurt snacks and Israeli chocolate bars.
Kessler insisted on trying to give away the sweets in her Purim basket to all present, and kissed Dalton on the cheek as she and her father departed.