Seventy-one is almost too young for a person to be a Holocaust survivor, which is why Dina Buchler-Chen’s unlikely story stands out among those of the six people chosen to light a torch at the official memorial ceremony at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem on Sunday night, the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
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“I don’t remember the hardest part of being with my mother and grandmother in a concentration camp,” she said over the phone, as she made her way to the rehearsal for the ceremony at the Holocaust memorial museum. “But I have an emotional recollection: I can’t stand the dark and hate loud noises and that’s from there.”
In 1941, aged one, Buchler- Chen was deported with her mother and grandmother to Loborgrad labor camp outside her hometown of Zagreb, Croatia, which was then part of Yugoslavia. Knowing her child’s chances of surviving what lay ahead were nil, Blanka Buchler smuggled her daughter out of the camp in a cotton-padded box with nothing but a note stating her name, her date of birth and the name of a cousin who she hoped would take care of her.
“Somehow my mom managed to smuggle me out – don’t ask me how,” she said.
The box containing Dina was taken to the Jewish community center in Zagreb, where it was left just outside the entrance.
“The staff initially feared it was a bomb,” she said. “Through the note they knew who my cousin was. The note is still kept at Yad Vashem.”
Blanka Ziczer-First, her mother’s cousin, whose name was on the fate-determining note, was a nonmarried opera singer with no experience rearing children.
Fearing her own life might be in danger if she kept the baby, she sought out the help of a neighbor with ties to the resistance. Through her, Dina was placed in the care of a woman in the countryside who was paid for her services.
“But that didn’t work well,” Buchler-Chen said. “After a while they checked up on me and saw how neglected I was. She kept me locked up in the attic and hungry. People ask me what my first memory is and it’s of the ceiling of that house. I have no better memories.”
Luckily, she was relocated, otherwise she may not have survived. This time Buchler-Chen was placed with Djina-Gertruda Beritic, a Catholic woman, who raised her alongside her two sons as her own.
“They were so beautiful, they looked like Hollywood movie stars,” said Dina, who was christened Maia, or Maria, at the local church. “They took me in and baptized me. On my birth certificate I have a Star of David and the signature of a priest and bishop of my baptism. These good gentiles cared for me.”
She lived a low-key and happy life until the war ended, she recalls, staying away from danger and adopting her surrogate family’s traditions.
“I was a Catholic, I admit it,” she said. “Later I would sometimes cross myself in secret, but that ended pretty fast.”
Tragically, Blanka Buchler’s fears were justified. She didn’t survive the war nor did her husband or anyone from Dina’s immediate family. But cousin Blanka Ziczer-First, the opera singer, did, and came back to claim Dina after the war ended.
“My cousin came and snatched me away,” she said. “I wasn’t Maia or Maria. I was Dina and a Jew. It was very hard to get used to.”
In 1948 Dina was taken to Israel, and she went on to build her life in the young country. She studied biochemistry and microbiology, got married and raised a family of her own. Now retired, Buchler-Chen devotes a large part of her time to Hadassah, the women’s Zionist group, and helped open a shelter for women in Jerusalem. She has two children and six grandchildren.
“I love being a grandmother,” she said.
She has never forgotten the kindness of the Beritics, who took her in all those years ago. Before they passed away she visited them several times in Zagreb, taking her grandchild with her on one occasion. In 1994 the Beritics were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, at a grand ceremony held in Croatia.
Buchler-Chen said she doesn’t think much of the what-ifs, the endless number of alternate scenarios which just as easily might have played out and led to a reality very different than the one she is familiar with.
In response to a question, she said that if her mother’s cousin had not picked her up after the war she probably would have stayed with the Beritics, like an unknown number of orphaned Jews who were placed with gentiles by desperate parents, and been brought up as part of the family.
“I’d have stayed there and become a Catholic,” she said. “Perhaps later in life they would have told me who I was. When I went back they reminded me that they put up a photo of my mother by my bed so that I remember her. But these were honest, good people, and such a thing truly exists.”
concentration camp,” she said over the phone, as she made her way to the rehearsal for the ceremony at the Holocaust memorial museum. “But I have an emotional recollection: I can’t stand the dark and hate loud noises and that’s from there.”