Dora’s dangerous journey: A Polish Jew in France

“There are bad people and good people,” she remembers. “I was saved in France by good people.”

People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of antisemitic attacks in France (photo credit: GONZALO FUENTES / REUTERS)
People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of antisemitic attacks in France
Abraham Weiner died six months ago, at the age of 99. His loving marriage to Dora – a 68-year-bond – was the story of a former OSS agent in the American Armed Forces supporting the resistance to the Third Reich and finding love with a Polish Jew who fought to survive in Nazi-occupied France.
Dora recalls the “good years” with Abe, the love they shared of ballet and opera and of being together. Dora described to me how Abe was an avid reader who always carried a book. He was a good person, a good husband, and a loving father and grandfather. Of course, Dora’s story began long before she met Abe. It is a story of courage, perseverance and luck. Dora’s experiences made her a stronger person and renewed her faith in humanity.
“There are bad people and good people,” she remembers. “I was saved in France by good people.”
Dora Weiner began her life as Dwojra Rubinsztejn in Plock, Poland, a suburb of Warsaw. Dwojra had a close relationship with her mother, Helene (Chaya Esther). Her mother lived a long life, dying at 93. Dora believes that her story of survival is also her mother’s story.
“Chaya Esther was a remarkable woman, ahead of her time,” recalls Dora. “Although she was small in size [barely 5 feet] she had the strength, wisdom and courage to lead the family.” Chaya Esther had seven siblings in Poland – a brother and a sister immigrated to America, another brother to France, and another brother to Germany. Dwojra’s mother always wanted to leave Poland but her plans were frustrated once she married. Her husband was a religious man who would sit the traditional shiva mourning period for any child who left Poland. He believed that a Jew would assimilate in any other country. Dora’s mother eventually took her three children and left Poland for France. But the father, who was a kosher slaughterer, did not follow.
Chaya Esther took her children to Paris in 1929. There Dwojra became Dora. Her uncle Bernard took her in. She was only two years old. She had a very happy childhood with cousins in France. Family was everything.
“We used to go on vacation every summer,” recounts Dora. “We were one big loving family.”
But this began to come to an end when Hitler came to power in 1933. In Poland, the situation deteriorated and many relatives in Poland made their way to France. Dora learned to write Yiddish and corresponded with her father. France was preparing for war as early as 1938. Students in Dora’s school were given gas masks. Yet, since she was not born in France she was not given one.
Dora remembers, “Can anyone imagine what goes on in the mind of an 11 or 12 year old? Children living in the same household, some are worth being saved, some not.”
Before war broke out, Dora’s family left Paris for the fishing resort of Croix de Vie. The family returned to Paris after the German invasion. In her memoirs Dora recounts, “It was a big shock to see the flag with the swastika flying all over town. The Germans were very polite. I guess they had orders. In the subways or buses they would always give up their seats to ladies, especially ladies with children.”
THIS CORDIALITY gave way to persecution. In the summer of 1941, Jews in France had to register with the police. The word “JEW” was stamped on identity papers. A year later, the Jews of France were issued Jewish stars.
“They were made of yellow satin material with a black border and the word JEW in the center, in our case JUIF. They had to be sewn on our clothes, on the left side of the chest area.” Dora remembers the strict regulations and rules. If any Jew violated the 8 p.m. curfew they were sent off to a concentration camp, never to be heard from again. Jews could not go to theaters, movies or swimming pools. Jews had to ride in the last car of the subway.
Jewish men were soon arrested in Paris. They were sent to work camps in France and at first were allowed visitors. But these men later were deported to Auschwitz. Dora was worried about her uncle, and especially her mother, who was considered a foreigner. Letters arrived from the remaining family in Poland, The correspondence was heavily censored. The Jews in Poland were in ghettos and would soon be murdered. Meanwhile, Dora’s uncle left Paris to join the army, the Free French.
On July 6, 1942, Dora’s mother was warned by the owner of a small dairy store not to return home that night. The police, who captured Jews at night, were preparing for a roundup. The family had to separate and find refuge throughout France. Dora first found refuge in Paris. But the danger was too great. Dora and her brother spoke French like natives but her mother spoke with an accent. They all hid their identity papers and traveled south by train. It was frightening. German soldiers were everywhere.
While Dora’s aunt and cousins found refuge in the Pyrenees, Dora’s immediate family were not French citizens and were restricted where they could settle. They had to present their identity papers. They found refuge in a farmhouse – no running water, no toilet and no outhouse. The farmer refused to present a paper to the authorities that said he needed Dora’s brother to work for him. As a result, Dora’s brother later was denied sanctuary, deported to Poland and murdered by the Germans.
Dora and her mother were sent to Lacaune les Bains. They had to register at City Hall and appear there on a designated day. There were many Jewish families in the town. Dora’s family had little money, and Dora’s mother looked after children in order to survive. Dora still does not know which Jewish organizations funded how much money each family received. There was no school for the 15 year old. She helped around the house and even gathered wood in the forests for the stove.
“For a city girl,” writes Dora,” I managed pretty well. To keep busy I used to knit children’s sweaters.” The Jewish youngsters in the town formed a youth group where they shared classical music, acting lessons, reading and celebrating Jewish holidays. It made life bearable. 
JEWISH MEN were arrested in town and sent to Drancy, a holding camp before deportation to the death camps in the East. The young Jews organized a resistance to the round-ups, using the first few notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to signal that police were on the prowl. Dora and her mother hid in a rented room not registered with the police.
Meanwhile, she received a card from her brother in Drancy. He told them he was being sent to Poland. Armand was 19 years old. That was the last they ever heard from him. Dora’s aunt and her daughters – French citizens – joined Dora and her mother in February 1944. They were not registered in town and Dora and her mother were again on the move, struggling to survive.
With the help of a dear friend Francoise in the underground they went to Toulouse, where they assumed new identities. They moved to a town near Toulouse and waited out the liberation at great peril. Paris was liberated on August 24, 1944, and soon after Dora and the Jews in hiding were liberated.
“The German flag with the swastika was taken down and the French flag raised in its place,” Dora remembers. “It was so emotional I cried, realizing that we were now free. I will never forget that moment.”
But the suffering did not end with liberation. Dora and her mother could not return to their Paris apartment, as it was occupied by two refugees placed there by the French government. They were fortunate to find comfortable lodgings in Paris, though, where Dora worked a salesgirl. But the end of the war in May 1945 revealed the trauma of the Holocaust.
“The horrors of the concentration camp were now in the open. But we could not face it, could not believe it. Some pictures started appearing in magazines. I could not bring myself to look at it. I put the magazines away and it took me a long time to have the courage to see it.”
Dora’s mother suffered from terrible nightmares. Her mother’s niece, Leni Grynberg, a beautiful woman, returned from Auschwitz a broken person. Grynberg did not discuss her internment in Poland except for the capos, Jews in charge of barracks who brandished whips and used them often. Dora understands that Jews were often forced to act in a certain way to survive.
“Yes, I think it is true in some cases but there was often a choice, and the individual involved could interpret it in his or her own way.” Dora’s brother and uncle did not survive. It took a year of mourning to begin to return to a sense of normal life. No doubt, Dora’s mother Chaya Esther, sustained Dora during the worst of times.
Dora and husband, Abe, raised three sons in America, in a thriving family. Dora Weiner’s story is incredible and inspiring. She tells her story often, especially to students in area schools. Her survival and those in her family who were murdered will never be forgotten. I am honored that she is a congregant in my synagogue.
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.