Holocaust: Babes in the woods - and cellars

Gerda Krebs-Seifer is one of hundreds of child survivors who gathered in Jerusalem to raise awareness.

holocaust lady 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
holocaust lady 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
For six seemingly endless weeks in the summer of 1942, Gerda Krebs-Seifer lay hidden in the tiny apartment cellar in southeastern Poland. The four-by-six-foot cellar, which was used to store vegetables and coal for the winter, was pitch dark. The 14-year-old Jewish girl was not allowed to step outside. She could not make any noise. She was forbidden even to light a candle. One day, after weeks of living in complete darkness, the teen defiantly emerged into the daylight, her eyes, unaccustomed, stung from the brightness of the sun. "I thought I was going to go nuts," she recalled in an interview this week. It was a sunny summer day, and the bedazzled girl just stood outside looking around aimlessly at the empty street, when suddenly her Polish landlady grabbed her by the arm. "What do you think you are doing?" she asked. "Do you want us both to be killed?" "I don't care, I don't care," the traumatized teenager cried as the woman rushed her back into the house, quickly giving her a cup of tea to soothe her nerves, before getting her back in the cellar. Weeks earlier, the girl's father, concerned that both his daughter and his wife would be killed in an upcoming German roundup in the Lvov ghetto, had discovered a Polish woman who was willing to hide his daughter for money. Her father, a businessman-turned-textile worker, had a special permit to leave the ghetto, which, unlike others in Poland, was not hermetically sealed. After making the arrangements, he managed to sneak his daughter out of the ghetto. Before she left, she bade farewell to her mother with a few parting words. "Please hide," she begged. "I will," her mother responded. The two kissed, and she left, never to see her mother again. While she lay hidden in the relative safety of the blackened cellar, her mother was murdered by the Nazis, after choosing to remain with an 11-year-old cousin who was too scared to hide alone in a place that would only fit one. When the German roundup was finally over, Krebs-Seifer was returned to her father, only to learn from him that her mother had been taken away by the Germans. "It was the worst day of my life," she recounted. But the horrors were far from over. For the next three years, she was forced into hiding again, as the German liquidation of the ghetto was set to begin, having to live by her wits to outsmart Polish anti-Semites all too eager to hand over a Jew, and to cope with the loneliness of a young girl who has just lost her mother. KREBS-SEIFER WAS among the thousands of Jewish child survivors of the Holocaust. Most of these children - now in their 70s and 80s - eventually went on to have children and grandchildren, but their lives would be irrevocably marred by the horrors they experienced. A group of 800 of these child survivors, including Krebs-Seifer, 80, attended a conference in Jerusalem this week, amid increasing public awareness of their suffering at a time when the number of Holocaust survivors is fast diminishing. "For a long time, we were the forgotten generation, and never felt welcome even among Holocaust survivors," said Stefanie Seltzer, president of the US-based World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust, which organized the annual event. Thousands of Jewish children were hidden in Nazi-occupied Europe. Their exact number is not known, since many never returned to their roots because they did not know they were Jewish; their adopted parents refused to hand them over to their Jewish relatives; or because they formed attachments to their foster families. Most were traumatized as they struggled to cope with why they survived, while 1.5 million other Jewish children were murdered. Krebs-Seifer was 12, living a happy sheltered life as the only child of an upper middle class family in Przemysl when World War II broke out. "I grew up almost overnight," she recalled. "My life changed forever." The family, which was not religious and spoke Polish, quickly learned how to live under the initial Russian occupation, her father changing professions from a store owner to a textile worker in another city to avoid persecution. "I felt that as long as I was with my parents I was safe," Krebs-Seifer recalled. But the real horror began with the entry of the Germans into their city in 1941, and the immediate persecution of the Jewish residents. "We had no rights; we were sub-human," she said. Some of the Jewish residents tried to escape, but were brought to the police by their Polish neighbors instead. Her family began to hear the stories of mass killings taking place in the mountains right outside the city, but they could not believe that such a thing was happening. Then the family moved into the ghetto in early 1942, and the world began closing in on them. For the next three years, Krebs-Seifer had to repeatedly use her wits to survive, as she moved from one hiding place to another, sometimes almost being turned in to the Nazis. "You know you look Jewish," said one Polish teen at a farm on which she was staying. "I have a cousin who tells me that to annoy me," she quickly retorted. The next day, she moved out of the area. At other times, it meant keeping silent, even in the face of robbery and exploitation. During the time she was sequestered in the Polish woman's cellar, the woman made off with a diamond she had kept hidden in her bra in case of emergency; she chose not to argue when the landlady asserted that it must have fallen on the floor. "My life depended on her,' Krebs-Seifer recounted. "I couldn't say anything." Shortly after she returned to the ghetto, her father learned that the German liquidation of the ghetto was imminent. Losing no time, he arranged to have his daughter handed over to another Polish woman, whose illegitimate child had died, and who was looking for a girl to take care of her other four children while she went out to work. "She took a a chance. She needed me almost as much as I needed her," Krebs-Seifer recalled, noting that the woman's two teenage sons surely knew she was Jewish but kept the secret. To avert any suspicion, the woman quickly taught her the basics Catholicism. "I never knew that much about my own religion," she conceded. She would go to church with the woman's baby in her arms, so that she could hide behind the child's face if she recognized anyone who might identify her as a Jew. "I had to go out so my neighbors would see that I was leading a fairly normal life as a Polish teenager," she said. Still, the barbs from the Polish neighbors were an ever-present danger. "You know she doesn't look like you," one of them told the woman of the house. "That's because she's illegitimate," the woman snapped back. "She wrings the laundry like a Jew," another jeered. DESPITE THE odds, the teenage girl lived out the war in the dilapidated, bombed-out, one-room flat. After the war ended, she would learn that her father - who had repeatedly saved her life by using his every contact - had been killed after being fingered by a Pole when going out to get food for a group of Jews living stealthily outside the ghetto. "I don't know where or how he died; all I knew was that there was no one left," she said. "I was so desperate, I was ready to commit suicide." Out of a family of 40 people, only two had survived. But, as fate would have it, in 1946, Krebs-Seifer got a letter from a Jewish woman in a nearby Polish town who suggested she come live with her and sent her money for train fare. After getting permission from her foster mother, she went to the woman's house. While she was there, Krebs-Seifer heard about an English rabbi who was taking war orphans to England. She knew she had an aunt in Leeds, so she went to see the rabbi in Warsaw, and was the last one on the list of 100 children to be taken. By the end of the year, Krebs-Seifer was in England, where she learned English and went on to become a registered nurse. Five years later, her only other relative to survive the war, a cousin, sent her an invitation to the US. It was subsequently, at a New York hospital where she was working that she met her American husband. Krebs-Seifer, who settled in Long Beach, California, had three children and four grandchildren, but kept the harrowing story of her childhood to herself for years. "When we came to England - and even [later in] the US - no one wanted to hear my story," she recounted. "Most people felt that we were exaggerating and didn't want to hear bad stories or simply felt guilty." It was only in the 1970s when she was first asked by the local Jewish federation if she would feel comfortable telling her story - which moved many people to contribute to the organization - did she begin publicly talking about her childhood. Over the next three decades, Krebs-Seifer lectured about her Holocaust survival in high schools and universities throughout the US. "I feel as long as I can keep going, I should talk," she said.