I am sitting in a comfortable apartment in Jerusalem’s Beit Tovei Ha’ir retirement residence on a sunny winter afternoon. But as Chaya Subar retells the story of her childhood in wartime Poland, I feel transported from her home to the Polish villages of Nadvorna, where she spent the first two years of her life, and Debszczyzna, where she spent four tumultuous years until the end of the war in 1945.
The calm manner in which the 83-year-old Subar spends much of our hour-and-a-half interview recounting the trials and tribulations of the period makes her story even more chilling.
Chaya Bressler was born in April 1939, just five months before Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Her parents, Avraham Yosef and Chana, realizing the precarious situation of Polish Jewry, tried to find a non-Jewish family that would agree to take their daughter in.
“My mother tried to find non-Jews willing to take me, but because parents were well known in Nadvorna, no one wanted to risk their life for a Jew. No one wanted me.”Chaya Subar
“My mother tried to find non-Jews willing to take me, but because parents were well known in Nadvorna, no one wanted to risk their life for a Jew,” says Chaya. “No one wanted me.”
Her father was arrested and imprisoned by the Germans in 1939, escaped in 1941, and joined the partisans in the forests.
After two years, Chana was able to contact her husband and informed him of the difficulties she had encountered in finding a family that would agree to take Chaya.
A fellow partisan told Avraham Yosef about Stanislaw and Karolina Klimek, a childless couple living in Debszczyzna, a village near Lublin, who might agree. Together with his partisan friend, Avraham Yosef went to their home, and the Klimeks decided to accept Chaya and raise her as their daughter. Before leaving, Avraham Yosef requested that they agree to return their daughter to any family member who might survive the war. The couple assented.
Stanislaw and Karolina took Chaya to Lublin, where they registered her at the local church under the name of Wandjia Klimek. At the same time, explains Chaya, they added the name “Clara Bressler” to a list that was kept in the church of the Jews in the town who had been killed. “We went back to the village, and life went on,” says Chaya.
Chaya’s earliest memories date from when she would be severely beaten by children in the village, who called her a “Zhid,” which is the Polish word for “Jew.” She didn’t understand the meaning of the word and excelled at the prayers that she had been taught in church. “We went to church every Sunday, and I knew my prayers better than any of the other kids,” she says.
Chaya’s adoptive parents would go out once a week to sell their produce at the city market. One morning, when five-year-old Chaya was left alone in their home, she heard noises and climbed into a tree high above her home to find the source of the sounds. She saw a squad of six military trucks bearing Nazi soldiers come to the village, brutally killing Polish villagers – men, women and children – while foraging for food and supplies.
Perched in the tree, out of sight of the soldiers, she was traumatized by what she witnessed and says, “That’s when I learned, never show fear and never cry – never, never never – lessons in my life.”
Life continued. The mother of two of the boys who would regularly beat Chaya at school became a frequent guest at the home of her stepparents. Chaya was upset that the woman was taking her stepmother’s possessions.
“She came in and picked up something that belonged to my mother and said, ‘How lovely – may I borrow this?’ I saw this happening every week. Finally, I told her, ‘You come here every Sunday, you pick up something that belongs to my mom, but you never bring anything back!’”
Chaya’s stepmother realized that the woman knew that Chaya was Jewish and was taking her possessions as blackmail, under the threat of revealing her true identity. But once Chaya yelled at her, it was too late. The woman went to the Gestapo in Lublin and told them that the family was harboring a young Jewish girl.
The next week, a squadron of German soldiers appeared at their home to execute Chaya. The soldiers took young Chaya and placed her against a wall. As the commander yelled out his orders, Chaya’s stepmother interrupted. “She comes to the wall,” recounts Chaya, “a Polish Christian woman, picks me up and says, ‘Then you will have to shoot us both.’”
Miraculously, the soldiers decided not to kill Chaya or her stepmother and left. Chaya attributes the sparing of her life not only to her stepmother interceding on her behalf but also to fortuitous timing. “The Americans were coming in and closing the camps and taking prisoners of war.” The soldiers saw little gain in killing Chaya and left. They never returned.
CHAYA’S FATHER was murdered during the Holocaust, but her mother survived. Being fluent in seven languages, she worked with US forces as a translator and writer. After the war, Chana found her way to Debszczyzna, where Chaya was living with the Klimek family.
The Klimeks did not want to give Chaya away, as they had never seen Chaya’s mother and were not certain of her true identity. Chana had to go to the Polish courts to prove that Chaya was indeed her daughter.
Chaya, for her part, was reluctant to leave Stanislaw and Karolina. She did not remember her mother, but when Mrs. Klimek said, “This woman is taking you on a two-week vacation,” she became interested.
Together with her stepfather, Chaya and Chana went to the train station. A photographer at the platform took a photo of young Chaya holding an apple. Chaya and Chana returned to Ansbach, Germany, where her mother worked in a hotel.
Nearly 80 years after leaving the Klimeks, Chaya speaks fondly of them. “I have total love for both of them. They loved me unconditionally. Today, not only do I feel love for both of them, but I also am in awe of how brave they were to take me into their home and care for me.”
In 1945, Chaya and her mother registered for the American quota system to immigrate to the US, but Chaya did not pass because she was ill and had to spend six months in a sanitorium. They tried once more in 1947 but again, were not admitted.
Finally, they engaged the services of a lawyer, who located her mother’s brother, who was living in New York and agreed to sponsor their immigration. They moved to the US in 1949, first living in the Bronx, near the brother, and then moving to the Lower East Side.
Life was not easy for Chaya and her mother.
“She never knew how to be a mom,” Chaya says. “If I coughed, she would say, ‘You have tuberculosis. You should be dead, and my husband should be living.’” Chaya says that her mother suffered severe emotional damage from the events of the war and the Holocaust.
Chaya spoke Polish, German and Yiddish fluently, but her English was laden with a heavy European accent, and she was taunted and beaten by her classmates. When she graduated from high school in the Bronx, she wanted to study to become a surgical nurse, but they had no money for tuition.
Despite their poverty, she applied for a scholarship to nursing school at Beth Israel Hospital and qualified for it. Yet, even after receiving the scholarship, she did not have enough money to attend nursing school or college, which bothers her to this day.
Chaya, who had worked at the B. Altman department store in high school as part of a work-study program, remained there and helped manage the store’s payroll department. She married at age 19 in 1958 and moved with her husband to Framingham, Massachusetts, and later to Pittsfield. Her husband worked as a Hebrew school teacher and principal.
In 1964, Chaya and her husband, together with their three sons, in search of a larger Jewish community, moved to Columbus, Ohio.
During that time, several of her friends died of cancer, and Chaya became involved in treating patients in hospice care. She trained in the field and says, unassumingly, “I am street smart and have common sense. All you needed was common sense.”
Chaya and her husband divorced in 1980, and she moved to Cleveland. She expanded her expertise in payroll programs, helped develop a payroll program for personal computers, and provided training to users.
In 1986, Chaya met and married David Subar, a widower from Rochester, New York. Chaya and David lived in Rochester, and she worked for a healthcare provider in hospice care. During their stay in Rochester, Chaya wrote a two-volume book on cultural competence for health agencies that was used by the home care system in the city.
When Chaya first met Subar, she did not think the relationship had a future because she wanted to make aliyah.
“I said, ‘We have nothing to talk about because as soon as I retire, I am planning to move to Israel.’ He said to me, ‘I was planning on doing the same thing.’ I answered, ‘Let’s talk some more.’ The rest is history,” she says, smiling.”
IN 2007, Chaya and David purchased an apartment in Arnona and made aliyah. In 2012, they moved to Beit Tovei Ha’ir in order to ensure a safe environment for her husband, who was 15 years her senior, when she would travel to the US.
Chuckling, she says, “As it turns out, I used the services more than he. His greatest pleasure was to eat breakfast, put on his backpack and explore Jerusalem on foot. He walked every day.”
David Subar died in August 2019 at the age of 95.
Chaya’s oldest son lives in Israel, and her middle son lives in the United States. Tragically, her youngest son, Rabbi Dovid Winiarz, died in a car accident in the US in January 2015, leaving a wife and 10 children. Just a few weeks before we sat for our interview, his widow died.
As a result of her death, says Chaya, “For the first time in my entire life, I was not in control of myself.” Her blood pressure rose, and she was not feeling well.
Chaya is currently completing her second tenure as president of the residents’ committee of Beit Tovei Ha’ir and is happy living there.
“This place is a godsend,” she says. “I have worked in other organizations, and I have never met staff as caring as this staff for these residents. They are wonderful.”
As president, she has been active in welcoming new residents; matching healthy residents to visit residents who are sick and lonely; organizing the collection of clothing and housewares that are donated to an organization that uses the monies raised from the sale of these items to provide new items for needy families; and represents the residents in dealing with the management of the home.
Overall, Chaya has been happy with her move to Israel. However, she reserves some choice vitriol for the divisiveness and how Jews treat their fellow Jews here.
“I am not a crier, but after getting to know people here in Israel, I cried every night for four years. What made me cry? I saw how some Jews treated other Jews.”
The Nazis, she points out, did not distinguish between Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or the unaffiliated when murdering Jews.
“I have come to Israel – my own country – to see how some Jews treat other Jews. We lost this country twice because of our behavior. If we lose it again, it’s three strikes and we’re out.”
To illustrate her frustration, she recalls waiting for a bus on nearby Malchei Yisrael Street while wearing the cap she has on for this interview.
“A boy looks at me and asks his mother, ‘Is this a shiksa?’ I answered in Yiddish, ‘No, I am a Jew, just like you.’”
At age 83, Chaya remains full of the passion and vigor she had growing up as a child in Poland. Living in Israel, her greatest pleasure, she says, “is being a listening and caring person to my family and friends. Most folks appreciate having a person willing to hear them when they carry a heavy burden.”
As our conversation comes to a close, she walks me to the elevator, and as we descend to the lobby with a group of people, she notices a new face, learns that today is her first day in the home, and welcomes her with a smile. ■
Chaya Subar, 83 From Rochester, New York To Jerusalem, 2007