‘Grandma, you are a celebrity!’

Marian Keren relates his wife’s story of survival during the Holocaust in the sewers of Lvov.

MARIAN KEREN 370 (photo credit: Steve Linde)
(photo credit: Steve Linde)
‘Did anyone here see the movie, In Darkness?” Holocaust survivor Marian Keren, 76, asks a small audience at a Limmud FSU conference in Princeton, New Jersey, on May 13. Dressed in shades of brown, his eyes sparkle as he says in his Polish-American accent, “What do you think of the sex scene?” Keren first gives the audience some background. He currently lives in Port Washington, New York, with his wife, Krystyna Chiger Keren, whose survival during the Holocaust in the sewers of Lvov, Poland served as the basis of the 2008 book, The Girl in the Green Sweater and the 2011 film, In Darkness.
In Darkness, which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film this year, is about a group of Polish Jews spending 14 months living underground, helped by a sewer inspector who secretly delivered supplies – at first for money, but later for nothing.
Krystyna, Keren’s wife, is the sole survivor still alive.
She was only seven in 1943, when her family went underground, and was kept warm in the sewers by a green woolen sweater knitted by her grandmother.
Krystyna was unable to come to the Limmud FSU conference because she was not well, yet Marian tells her tale as if it is his own.
Marian Keren is a survivor from Krakow, where during the Holocaust he was at first taken by his mother to the Jewish ghetto (together, he notes, with Roman Polanski), and later deported to the Plaszow concentration camp featured in Schindler’s List.
Oskar Schindler, who was a friend of the family, helped him and his mother get out of the camp, and he was adopted by the family’s maid. He returned to Krakow after the war, reuniting with his mother and father, who had also been hiding with a gentile family.
“But my wife’s story is much more dramatic,” Keren says, emphatically. “Her story has been translated into many languages, including English, Polish, Russian and Hebrew. The story is portrayed in the film, In Darkness, directed by the renowned Polish film director, Agnieszka Holland.”
When in May 1943, the Nazis began destroying the Jewish ghetto in Lvov, Keren says, many of the city’s 150,000 Jews were rounded up, sent to concentration camps or executed.
"Krystyna’s father and a few of his friends feared for their lives, and discovered the perfect hiding place: the grim tunnels of the sewer system beneath the city streets.
“They lived in darkness, surrounded by filth, dampness and constantly battling with rats. One woman secretly carried a baby and gave birth, and then unfortunately killed the baby because she realized that his cries might endanger all their lives.
“They were helped by a Catholic Polish sewer worker, an ex-criminal and thief named Leopold Socha and two of his friends, whom they entrusted with their lives and valuables. Without them, they would surely have perished.
“When the Soviets liberated Lvov, after 14 months living in hiding in the sewers, the small group of 11 emerged, looking more like creatures of the underworld than human beings. This is the story of her survival against impossible odds, as you imagine.”
Becoming emotional for a second, he pauses to catch his breath. And then moves on to what has become the most controversial part of the film.
“You know, the sex scene in the movie is very interesting, and some people have criticized Agnieszka for it, saying it doesn’t belong there,” he says. “But she wanted to make it as realistic, as real, as possible.”
A young woman from the audience, whose family came to the US from Lvov, interrupts to express her shock, not only because it took place in a sewer during the Shoah, but because it was sex between a man and a woman who were not married.
Keren laughs, and with the wisdom of a survivor, responds: “We are all human, and it happened, and the fruit of that sex is living right now in London. He was born a few months after the liberation. His name is Henry Margulies, and his parents, Mundek and Klara, later got married but have since passed away. Henry is something like 67 today.... My wife took care of him after the liberation. He was a little baby.”
Asked for his own feelings on the subject, Keren says: “I read all the comments in various newspapers, in English and in Polish. And when it came out, people asked, ‘How could this happen?’ They lived in such a filthy place, and so on.
“But it happened. It was a love story, and Henry’s parents married and lived in London for many years, and had a kosher catering business in London. We keep in touch with the family. Henry later had a sister, who is a now rabbi in Seattle. We all gathered in Berlin during the premiere of the movie [on February 6, 2012].”
He pauses again, then says, “Now let me tell you another interesting story.”
“A man who is now 90 years old and lives in Poland read the book and saw the movie and wanted to see my wife. Why? He was a witness as they emerged from the sewers. He was one of the few people who saw them as they emerged. And he was so inspired that he said, ‘I have to go and see this little girl.’ “He, with his grandson, drove from Poland to Berlin – it’s like seven hours’ travel – and we met him in Berlin. He embraced my wife.
“He had written his own memoirs, which he gave to us, and he mentioned that at that time, he was a young man, 21 years old, and he and his friends met Socha on the street. And Socha said, ‘Come on, come on, you’ll see a miracle.’ And they went to this courtyard where they saw Krystyna and the others coming out of the sewers.”
Asked about Socha’s fate, Keren says: “Unfortunately in 1946, he was riding on a bicycle with his daughter and a Russian car approached them, and somehow he balanced on the bicycle and saved his daughter, but he was killed. He was later recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile.”
Keren himself made aliya, reunited with and married Krystyna, whom he had originally met in Krakow, served in the IDF and studied at the Technion. He later worked for the Defense Ministry, with his first job being in the office of then-defense minister Shimon Peres in Tel Aviv.
He emigrated to the US in 1968 and settled in Port Washington with his wife, who became a dentist after studying at the Hadassah Dental School in Jerusalem.
He became a technician, working in a dozen different jobs in New York, including one at the former World Trade Center, before retiring recently with the help, he says, of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
They have two sons, Roger and Doron, who has a dental clinic in Port Washington, and two grandsons, Jonathan and Daniel.
The green sweater that Krystyna wore during her refuge in the sewers is now on display at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
“My wife didn’t want to give it away at first, but they begged her, and eventually she donated the sweater to the museum. One day, just after the book was written, we took my two grandchildren to a museum in New York, where it was being exhibited,” says Keren. “A guide at the museum knew my wife, and said to this group of black, female students he was taking around, ‘You wouldn’t believe it, but the girl who wore this sweater during the 14 months hiding in the sewers is standing here with her two grandchildren.
“My youngest grandson, who was at that time just seven years old, said: ‘Grandma, you are a celebrity!’ “And so we decided to title the book, The Girl in the Green Sweater.
Picking up a new paperback, Keren offers copies to the audience for $10, saying the proceeds would go to Limmud FSU. By the time he concludes his presentation, there is hardly a dry eye in the room.