On a recent whirlwind speaking tour in the US, every minute was accounted for and every action carefully planned out. So when I was approached, after a particular speech I gave in Southfield, Michigan, by a woman who wanted to know if I could speak to her group that very afternoon, my initial reaction was that it would be next to impossible.
When I heard what group she represented, however, there was no question in my mind – I would be there. And that was how a last-minute schedule addition became the most moving speaking engagement of my life.
Her name was Esther Posner and she told me she had been a hidden child during the Holocaust. Her “group,” whose makeup I did not fully understand, was meeting that afternoon, and she thought they might appreciate hearing from me.
What exactly is this group? I asked, expecting something like a book club or a ladies’ tea. I was told it was the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants. This would be the annual Hanukka party of the Michigan chapter. There would be about 70 people in attendance, most of whom were survivors, having been hidden children of the Holocaust.
I had chills just hearing about the existence of such a group. And to be the guest speaker… I was honored beyond words. Of course I would do it. Even though it meant creating a new presentation, customized for the audience, having just a few short hours to prepare, and squeezing the program into an already tight schedule.
My existing program that I had organized for the trip was about the “lost” and “hidden” Jews all over the world whom Shavei Israel, where I work as director of marketing, helps to reconnect with their Jewish heritage and the State of Israel. One of these communities is the hidden Jews of the Holocaust in Poland – almost the reverse of the group I would be speaking to.
They are those who hid their Jewish identity after the Holocaust as an act of self-preservation, and have been revealing their secret to loved ones only now, 70 years later, as a final act. The stories I collected to share that afternoon are those of the third generation who have only recently found out about their Jewish roots and are exploring their heritage.
I arrived early at the beautiful home of a couple, both of whom were child survivors. The hostess, a lovely woman named Miriam Ferber, was born in 1942 in Poland and given to a Christian family to protect her when she was just seven months old. Her parents and brother perished in the Holocaust, and she grew up with the Christian family, who protected her as their own, never knowing her true Jewish identity until she was 15. Miriam stayed in Poland until she was 19, when she came to the United States as an exchange student, attending Stern College in New York and ultimately marrying Fred Ferber, whom she met at a Holocaust survivor dinner dance in Detroit.
As we made our way down to the great room, I was taken by the astonishing number of family photos, formal portraits and collages on nearly every wall, spanning from obviously prewar years until today. It was like a continuous testimonial of family, pride and survival.
Miriam remarked that while “life does give sorrow, we must celebrate joy and celebrate our children and my husband and grandchildren. I am not a victim.”
I was greeted warmly by everyone as I entered the main area. Settling in, I watched one after another of the attendees, smartly dressed, smiles on their faces, no trace of the trauma that each one clearly experienced so many decades before. And yet, as I spoke with various guests, they each promptly opened up to tell me their own tale, and what made them a member of this unique and special club.
Posner, who had brought me there, describes her experience as a child in Holland as just like the Anne Frank story – except with a happy ending. She told me about how a local theater group was recently putting on a performance of The Diary of Anne Frank. As survivors, she and her husband were invited to see the play and speak to the cast. Though she had seen the play many times, this time she experienced something unusual; the director had the cast members line up on stage and speak about themselves and what the play meant to them. “The man who played Anne Frank’s father, Otto, said the cast had been conversing among themselves wondering if anyone was alive who had experienced what Anne Frank had gone through. And there I was.”
A man at the meeting named Jack Gun had come from Poland. He was very open with me, determined, as he is, to make people aware of the Holocaust, aware of the tragedy that can occur from hatred, racism, bullying and just being a bystander. “Not being a bystander is the most important thing,” Jack emphasized with feeling, “because Hitler could never have accomplished what he did if there hadn’t been so many bystanders.”
Jack and his older brother escaped the mass murder of all of the Jews in the ghetto in Rozhishche, including his parents, sister, uncles, aunts and nearly all of his cousins. A farmer his father had been close with hid them and fed them for two long, difficult years.
I found that tears were always on the verge of spilling out of my eyes as I tried to absorb the enormity of each person’s story, of every precious one of their family members who were lost to cruel murder, every child ripped from the arms of its beloved family, every life since lived seemingly to its fullest, by the looks of everyone there. I was overwhelmed.
And it was in this mind-set that I stood up in front of all of those people and told the stories of the Jews of Poland after the Holocaust who stayed and hid – as adults.
I felt intimidated, unworthy to speak in front of so many who were all heroes in my eyes. Yet I spoke, and told the stories of young people like Sandra. Each Christmas Sandra’s grandmother would make latkes and sufganiyot and spin the dreidel. They would clean the house from top to bottom each spring and buy new clothes. These hints meant nothing to her, however, and she was shocked when her grandmother revealed that she was Jewish. Her grandmother’s family had paid to change their papers to “Catholic” to protect themselves.
She had guarded her secret for close to 70 years, and now Sandra is doing everything she can to understand what it means to be Jewish.
I told them about Paula. Paula’s family had also paid to change their papers to “Catholic” all those years ago.
Paula grew up in an extremely anti-Semitic home. It was an enormous shock to her when her mother told her she was Jewish.
Grzegorz found out he was Jewish the same time his mom did: when his grandmother was dying. She had hidden a beautiful Jewish star charm in the attic, which she directed them to. Grzegorz now wears it all the time and has been to Israel many times.
In addition to these personal stories, there are communal ones. I told them about the Jewish kindergarten that just opened in Lodz, Poland, the first one to open there in decades, 70 years after the Nazis liquidated the Lodz Ghetto and sent its remaining Jews to Auschwitz.
Now Lodz, like other Polish cities, is experiencing a renewal of Jewish spirit, as people continue to discover their Jewish roots and embrace their Jewish identity, with the help of Shavei Israel and Jewish community leaders there.
At this point it was the members of the audience with the tears.
I was overwhelmed – but in such a good way. What an opportunity, what an incredible experience: the feeling of being a part of a full circle, a circle of hope, a circle of promise, a circle of life.
The writer is a marketing consultant, photographer, author and public speaker. Her subjects of choice include Israel, aliya and social media... and sometimes all three at once.