My Mother. . .
. . . was the fourth of eight children in a Polish Jewish family of modest means. Her father (my maternal grandfather) was a cobbler who traveled around the countryside to get work and was often gone for many days at a time. Her mother, Leja Grosse Szklarz (my maternal grandmother), was a homemaker. Imagine feeding eight children on a cobbler’s salary in 1920s and 30s! My mother remembered how her mother always kept a pot of soup simmering on the stove, because if friends stopped by, she could add a couple cups of water and still there would be food to share.
My mother was born in a small town called Wloszczowan in Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship, about 31 miles west of Kielce. When my mother was a young girl, the family moved to a larger town called Będzin. (In 2019, my husband and I took a trip there. It is quite a lovely town and just as she described it to me, with a large town square, castle, synagogue, trees, and gardens.)
Mother’s family was in Bedzin when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. At that time, she, her sisters Celia, Roselyn, and Sabina and their little brother, Hillel, were still living at home, but their two older sisters were adults and had married, and their oldest brother, Ben, was a soldier in the Polish Army. Concerned they would be captured by the Nazis, my grandparents decided to move their five youngest to the nearby village of Sosnowiec with their belongings in one trunk, and hid in the loft of a barn of a non-Jewish farmer. Several days later, they heard Nazi boots. Someone had been betrayed them.
Suddenly here was this rapping from below. “Raus! Raus! Out! Out! Quick, come down here!”
My grandfather answered, “There are only six of us up here!”
“Quickly, Jadzia!” Leja told my mother. “Get in the trunk!”
My mother wept, “Don’t leave me!”
“Jadzia, you will survive. I promise you, you will survive!”
From inside the trunk, Jadzia could hear her father pleading with the Nazis, “Please, don’t hurt my children!”
But the Nazis took them all. It was the last time my mother would see her parents.
For hours Jadzia remained hidden inside the trunk, wondering, “Where am I going to go? What am I going to do?” In the evening, she decided to walk to town but was stopped by a Nazi soldier. “I not Jewish,” she declared. “I am looking for a friend.”
But the Nazi didn’t believe her and took Jadzia to Nazi headquarters. There, a man who was mopping the floor whispered, “You better run while you can, little girl!” and Jadzia attempted to flee, but she was caught and sent to Auschwitz.
One day, someone came to her and said, “I believe your sister is in the infirmary. Immediately she ran and found her 8 year-old sister, Sabina, badly burned . Imagine Jadzia’s joy!
Then a Nazi guard came up to her and said—
“What are you doing? Get out of here!”
“No, I’m going to stay with my little sister!” Jadzia cried.
“No, you’re not! You’ve got to leave!”
Many years later, my mother told me, “I knew we were going to die, but I wanted to die with Sabina, and they wouldn’t even let me do that. I never saw her again.”
In August 1943, my mother was moved to Bergen-Belsen, one of the Wehrmacht’s largest POW camps, then transferred to the all-female concentration camp, Ravensbrück, 56 miles north of Berlin, and finally, to Leipzig Concentration Camp, where she was liberated by American soldiers the first week of May 1945. The untold horrors she suffered for almost two years plagued her with nightmares for the rest of her life.
The protocol set by the United States Red Cross after the liberation was to urge people to return to their hometown and register so family members and friends could find them. Alone in the world, that is what my mother did. She was 19 years old.
My Father. . .
. . .was the youngest of four childern of a well-to-do, middle-class family. His father (my grandfather) was a successful entrepreneur who manufactured uniforms for General Franco’s army in Spain. My father was born in Kielce, the capital of Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship, in southern Poland. The family had been living in Łódź, in the central part of Poland, when the war broke out, and my grandfather decided they would be safer if they returned to Kielce.
My father had an older sister named Sofia who was ten years older than he and was like a mother to him. Sofia was married with a 5 month-old baby when she returned home to live with her parents after her husband joined the Polish Army. One night, the family was awakened by knocks and shouts. The Nazis had taken over Kielce and were ordering all the Jews to line up in the town square. As Sofia was leaving the house, she asked, “Where are you taking us,” and a Nazi soldier grabbed the baby from her arms, held him upside down, and pulled his legs apart until the child was ripped open, dead while grief-stricken Sofia looked on, helpless.
The family was transported to Auschwitz, except my father, who was 16, and his older brother, Ben, who was 18. They were ordered to clean the ghetto on hands and knees, using only their mouth to pick up the filthy garbage. From there, they were taken to Heinrichsgriend (today, located in the Czech Republic) and in August 1944, to Auschwitz. My parents did not know one another there, but each was tattooed with prisoner numbers. My father’s was B-3348. My mother’s was 537*75. From Auschwitz, my father was taken to Dachau, Oranienburg, and Munich-Allach concentration camps, and on April 30, 1945, Allach was liberated by American troops. My father and his friend, Ben Szklarz, went first to Munich, then returned to Poland to find their families. Ben found his mother, my father found Sofia.
In September 1945, my father met Ben’s sister, Jadzia. They were married in June 1946. I was their first child, born in December 1947. In June 1949, my father’s uncle, Gabe Stern, who had emigrated to the United States in 1918 and was a naturalized American citizen, sponsored us. I was only 18 months old when we boarded the SS Macrae and came to the United States through Ellis Island. We settled in Columbia, where Uncle Abe and his wife lived, and my father got a job as a joiner and from there grew a business building residential homes and commercial buildings that expanded throughout the southeast.
I had a happy, safe, pleasant childhood. They raised four children and provided for us in ways that would make most families, anytime and anywhere, envious. My parents were involved in the community, Jewish and secular. They believed strongly in education and today I am a physician, my sister Helena has a doctorate in audiology, our brother Herb is also a physician, our brother Bill is a successful real estate developer. Growing up, we had no grandparents or cousins, and there was an unspoken but pervasive sadness about the many family members who had been murdered in concentration camps. Just as my father was about to retire from business, my mother developed dementia and died June 21, 2001 – 18 months after my father died unexpectedly from a cardiac episode.
Two people, bound by the Holocaust, who came to this country with no formal education, no money. But they had hope in the future. And they had love. I miss them terribly. They were wonderful. They lived amazing lives. And they made a difference.
By Dr. Lilly Filler