A survivor’s story

Eva Adler experienced great loss during the Holocaust, but her passion and ‘impossible love’ inspired her son to carry on her legacy.

The hole Anton Sukhinski built in his backyard to hide six Jews during World War II (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
The hole Anton Sukhinski built in his backyard to hide six Jews during World War II
(photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
"As I promised you, Manolo, I begin writing the story of my life during the Second World War.” So begins the epic retelling of Eva Adler’s odyssey of profound loss during the Holocaust to one of her two beloved sons.
It is a harrowing tale of survival, but it is also a love story. A story so powerful that it inspired one of her sons to co-found The March of the Living more than 30 years ago to ensure that his family’s legacy is never forgotten.
That son, Baruch Adler, a prominent attorney living in Israel, has told his mother’s story many times, and wants the millions of other stories that risk being forgotten to also be retold for generations to come.
His older brother, Emanuel, a professor of international relations at the University of Toronto, is the “Manolo” the note is addressed to.
The note is among the Adler’s most cherished possessions.
BORN EVA Halperin in Zborow, Poland, in 1914, Adler begins her letter on August 31, 1939. It is the eve of the Nazi invasion of Poland, some three years after her fiancé, Avraham Adler, departed for Uruguay to create a better life for Halperin, whom he planned to marry when she joined him.
“That evening, crowds of people gathered around the only radio in our town and we heard our Marshal Pilsudski’s speech, whose last words were: ‘By God, we are starting the war,’” she wrote.
“We felt as if a heavy stone fell squarely on our aching hearts. We were devastated and overwhelmed with fear and calamity, anticipating a destruction, the colossal dimensions of which we were not even able to fathom.”
That foreshadowing came to fruition for Adler on July 4, 1941, when she wrote that SS units arrived in Zborow for the first time.
“They went from house to house yelling ‘Out with the damned Jews!’” she wrote. “They took the Jewish men for work. They forced my father and my two brothers, who had been wounded, out of bed, and we never saw them again.”
Nearly eight weeks later, Adler told her son that the Nazis had arrived for the second time.
“This time, it was my mother who fell into their hands,” she wrote.
“I managed to escape and hid in a wooden shed. I remained all alone, with no parents or brothers.”
At this point, Adler said she left home to live with a friend in the ghetto, with five other families.
“There was a terrible typhoid epidemic,” she recalled.
“Three people of whom I took care died in my arms. There were some 20 funerals every day. Thus we lived until March 1943, when they took us to a labor camp.”
That summer, Adler wrote that rumors began circulating that the Nazis would soon kill all the people in the camp.
“On the night of June 23, 1943, I escaped from the camp with another family,” she wrote.
“We went to the house of one of their former neighbors, and he hid us in a bunker. I didn’t know him, but it is due to him that I am here today to tell the story.”
That man’s name was Anton “Antos” Sukhinski, a quiet, gentle, socially awkward, impoverished bachelor, who lived alone in a very small house.
“He had dug a basement under the house, where he hid me and another family of four – Yitzhak Zeiger, his wife Sonia and their two sons, Munio and Milek... With us was another young girl, aged 16 or 17, Zipora Stock, today Shindelheim,” she continued.
Adler remained under Sukhinski’s care for more than a year, until one night in October, when the Nazis invaded the bunker, wounding Adler and killing an elderly woman with whom she shared the space.
“We managed to escape, thanks to Anton’s intervention,” she wrote.
“We wandered the entire night until daylight. After we had walked some six kilometers we were received by some people who let us into their barn and gave us warm milk.”
Adler wrote that they remained in the barn for only 24 hours, then decided to take a chance and return to Sukhinski’s home.
“The night was terribly dark and cold,” she wrote.
“Our feet stumbled on the stones and sank in freezing water; our clothes were soaked and stuck to our bodies. We finally managed to reach Anton’s home without being seen. It was a joyful moment when we reached his home.
“He received us warmly, opened his arms, crying with joy and kissing us. He whispered into our ears so that no one could hear: ‘Dears, I am so happy that you came to me. From now on I will not permit anyone to harass you. From now on no one will be able to discover you.’” This time, their most modest guardian housed the group in his attic, until he was able to dig a new bunker outside.
“The size of this bunker was 2.50 by 1.20 by 0.80 meters,” she wrote.
“We were six in this space, and we could only sit or lie. There was only one little kerosene lamp. We were happy to be under his care, but for Anton this presented a terrible burden, and he was alone to bear it with his angelic patience, his deep love for human beings, and his determination to save our lives.”
During one harrowing encounter, Adler said the Nazis arrived, and held a gun to Sukhinski’s chest, ordering him to denounce the Jews.
“But he stood firm,” she wrote.
“They searched, screamed, and again God wanted us to live. From our hiding place we could hear everything, and in fear of death we asked God to save us.”
Despite saving their lives again, Adler said Sukhinski faced great difficulty in feeding the group.
“He was so poor that he himself hardly had enough to eat,” Adler wrote.
“He couldn’t appear to have enough money to buy much more food than he needed. Luckily his brother and his wife lived in the neighborhood.
“They knew about our existence,” she continued. “She would cook for us, and during nighttime would give it to Anton, who would quietly bring it to his home and give it to us. Many times he gave us his own food and would go to bed hungry.”
Finally, on July 24, 1944, following heavy bombardments, the Germans were forced to withdraw, and the Russians liberated Zborow.
“I remember the moment when Anton opened the trapdoor of the bunker,” she wrote. “Our blood froze because we thought the Germans had discovered us.
But he had come to tell us with his soft voice that was full of joy: ‘Come out. You have been saved. The Russians are here!’” BUT THE story does not end there.
Although Avraham wrote dozens of letters to his fiancée from Uruguay in a desperate effort to get her out of Europe, Eva didn’t receive any of them, and he became terrified by the prospect of never hearing from her again.
It was not until 10 years later, during a serendipitous encounter while living in Krakow, that her life finally took a turn toward hope, in a dramatic plot twist that Baruch recently recalled with awe.
“After 10 years of being separated from my father after the war, in 1946 a friend found my mother on the street in a shtetl in Krakow by chance, and said my father was alive in Uruguay and still looking for her,” he related.
“He said he was waiting for her, and my mother replied, ‘Are you sure he is waiting for me?’ The man said yes, and then my father tried to find a way to get her to Uruguay.”
“They believed that they would be reunited very easily when he first left,” he continued. “However, things happened very fast in 1937 and 1938, and when my father tried to bring her, life became a living hell. Hitler made it impossible for Jews in Poland to survive by leaving.”
After discovering his fiancée was alive, Avraham, then 37 years old, contacted the Swedish Red Cross to help him, and six months later, Eva, then 32, traveled by ship to Montevideo, where they married two weeks later.
Baruch and his brother Emanuel were born in Uruguay 18 months apart. In the early 1970s, the family made aliya, and created a home in Jerusalem.
In 1986, Baruch Adler, by then a successful real estate attorney, traveled to Auschwitz-Birkenau to set the groundwork for the first March of the Living, an educational trip which has brought thousands of participants to Poland to bear witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust, culminating in a visit to Israel to celebrate Remembrance Day and Independence day.
On Baruch’s trip, he also searched for his mother’s protector, but could not make contact with Sukhinski until the fall of Communism, after 1989.
In 1994, the Adlers flew a still-impoverished Sukhinski to Israel, where he was inducted into the “Righteous Among the Nations” at Yad Vashem, where his memorial rests along with the most famous inductees, including Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler.
Yad Vashem memorialized him, in part, as follows: “Anton (Antos) Sukhinski was a loner and an outcast. Some even described him as the village idiot. He never married, and lived – always on the verge of poverty – in a small modest house in Zborow. His neighbors often made fun of him because of his gentle nature and his love of all living creatures.
“But at the time of total moral collapse, when the great majority either participated in the murder of the Jews or indifferently turned their backs on their neighbors, it was Anton Sukhinski – the village idiot – who stood up for his beliefs and in stark contrast to his surroundings, preserved human values.
Without any help or support, he was responsible for the survival of six people.”
INSPIRED BY Sukhinski’s bravery, a loving children’s book titled The Secret of the Village Fool, was written by Rebecca Upjohn, and illustrated by Renné Benoit, to honor his legacy.
In another twist of fate, after being separated for 10 years, Avraham and Eva Adler died 10 years apart on the same date on the Jewish calendar, in 1995 and 2005 respectively, said Baruch.
“I believe my mother’s story is also the story of both of my parents, and it is not just ‘unbelievable,’ like most of the stories of survivors of the Holocaust, but also a unique story of impossible love under inhuman circumstances,” he said.
“I am often troubled by the thought that it was my mother, and not a stranger, unknown to me, who had undergone such terrible trials – who endangered herself so much on an unimaginable level – before entering the shelter that Anton Sukhinski offered her and others, and survived through a petrifying period that must have seemed like an eternity, when she was hidden under the ground.”
“I tremble at the fact that this same woman had gone through such horrors, and I cannot find rest,” he added.
Still, Adler said he credits both his parents’ remarkable strength and perseverance for instilling his “broad perspective on life, and the ability to stand firm on my feet.”
“ALONG WITH the bravery of my mother, my father’s strength to persist holding on – unreservedly waiting for the news that my mother is alive, knowing that he will find every way to bring her over and ultimately get married to her, his fiancée – is also worth noting,” he said.
“My parents’ whereabouts in those days will stand for generations in my brother’s family and mine, and become a source of pride and solidarity,” he continued.
“We believe that our children and grandchildren will continue carrying the torch of identification with the values of loyalty, courage, perseverance and faith in life, and hope that goodness will prevail.
“This message is well understood, perhaps more than anyone else, by the organizers and participants of the March of the Living,” Adler noted.
The final sentence of Eva’s letter imparts as much.
“Never forget, always remember, and beware never to undergo anything remotely close to such horrendous experiences as I did,” she cautioned, signing the letter “Mother.”