This post is part of the JCPA’s project “Celebrating New Americans” as part of Jewish American Heritage Month. This is a story of a family lost, and a family found. A story of two little girls whose lives were stolen, and two little girls who found a new life. A story of a father who lost his wife and children and a mother who lost her husband and found a father for her children. It is my family’s story. By Lea Citrin Whitney
In 1939, two little girls, Elke and Yospeh, ages 5 and 7, left Warsaw, Poland, in a buggy with their parents, Sheindel and Chaim, on a journey to their Bubbe’s (grandmother’s) potato farm in the village, Nanien. As far as the children were concerned, they were going to their Bubbe’s for the summer. In reality, the parents were taking them away from the city the Germans had taken over. They lived in the farmhouse for several months until neighbors reported that the Germans had destroyed Warsaw and were infiltrating the smaller towns in the countryside. The family, including Sheindel’s sister (also named Elke), her husband (Arye) and three brothers (Towia, Moshe and Yisroel), left the farmhouse and traveled to the forests and swamplands outside Nanien to escape from the German soldiers. Note: What happened to Towia?
Danger in the forest Life in the forest was dangerous. Living conditions were horrible and the weather frightening. The family had little clothing with them and little if any covering for the coming winter with its bitter cold and snow. There were frequent assaults by German soldiers and their sniffing dogs. The little band had to be quiet in the daylight and move about only at night. Individuals got separated and lost as they scattered to hide from the searching soldiers. Mothers sometimes left their babies in villages they passed, knowing the little ones would not survive the harsh winter conditions. And, the entire group would be at deadly risk should a baby cry out as a German soldier was patrolling nearby.
Many groups lived in the forests of Poland during the German occupation. Groups had to be small so noise could be kept to a minimum. Fires were short lived, as the rising smoke could signal the group’s presence to the German soldiers. Their horses or cycles could move quickly and many were on foot, ready to shoot any living thing they could find. However, in one electrifying moment, a solitary soldier quietly spared the life of the children’s grandmother, Bubbe, whose dress had caught on a tree branch while running away. (describe her feelings/actions?)
The group changed locations constantly so as to not be discovered. They couldn’t leave behind any signs of life. At first they dug bunkers in the ground to hide, but the Germans came one morning and threw grenades into them, killing several families. Somehow, the bunker Elke and Yospeh’s family was hiding in was spared. They never again hid in a bunker.
Cruel winters When winter came, they tried to stay warm by sleeping side by side. Layers of leaves became blankets. Potatoes stolen from nearby farms became both their staple food and source of warmth when heated and placed next to their feet. When they walked at night through the frozen swampland, Sheindel covered herself with a white sheet so little Elke and Yospeh could follow her in the moonlight. Chaim, Sheindel’s husband, died that first winter from the severe cold, probably of pneumonia. Fearing for her youngest daughter Yospeh’s survival, Sheindel gave her up to Moshe, Sheindel’s brother, and Bubbe, who found shelter in a nearby barn. The three spent many months in a small hole dug underneath the barn floor. There was barely room for them and no room to stand. Sheindel ventured out of the woods at night to drop food down to them. When spring came, they were able to leave the barn. Yospeh was almost 7 years old and could not stand up straight. Even worse, she was covered head to toe with lice and maggots. Although tiny and broken, she was alive and grateful to be reunited with her sister and mother. Her happiness was short-lived, however.
Two blackbirds, hovering Yospeh and Elke were soon to witness the brutal deaths of their young aunt, Elke, and their uncle, Yisroel. There was a raid in the woods and everyone ran in all directions. Elke, pregnant with her first child, had lost sight of her husband, so Yisroel grabbed her hand and they ran together. But the German soldier was faster than the pregnant woman, and Yisroel could only pull Elke’s hand so much. They were caught and shot. Yospeh and her sister Elke, hiding behind a tree, watched in horror, and then ran for their lives. When they recounted the experience to me years later, they added this story. Their Bubbe, who was running away in another part of the woods, stopped when she saw two blackbirds hovering over her head, and cried out, “My children, Yisroel and Elke are dead!” Arye, Elke’s husband, was separated from the group and never seen again by her family.
With her brother and sister now dead (what happened to Moshe?), Sheindel was left alone to protect Bubbe and the two girls under desperate conditions. Eight-year-old Elke refused to separate from her mother. But Yospeh was given no choice. She was sent to an orphanage Sheindel had heard about for children whose parents had disappeared, taken suddenly from their homes or neighborhood streets.
A meeting in the woods Some time later, in the forest near the town of Parczewa and not far from the larger town of Wlodowa in eastern Poland, Sheindel met another Jew, Awadje Cytrin, who had also left his home to hide from the Germans. Awadje had lived in Wlodowa with his wife and two little girls. He was about 30 years old and had worked with his grandfather as a harness maker. When the Germans took over the town, he was forced to work at a labor camp every day. One day his family was stolen from his life. He came home after work and found his wife and daughters gone. Unable to find them, he knew that they almost certainly had been rounded up with others, put on a train and sent to a concentration camp, probably nearby Sobibor. Soon afterward, he, too, was rounded up and brought to the train station. Hundreds of Jews stood in lines upon lines. Awadje’s neighborhood friend motioned to him to crouch down near the tracks and roll under the train, one track after another. They did this quickly, but it felt like a lifetime to them. They crawled and ran, hid, and ran again and again until they made it to the edge of town and into the woods. Awadje had left Wlodowa a young man, but overnight the awful fear and pounding heart of an escapee had turned his hair turn snow white. Coming upon Sheindel’s group, Awadje joined the little band and soon became not only a leader, but also the protector of Sheindel and her little family.
People in hiding rarely talked about their own situations or the whereabouts of other Jews. You were known only as so-and-so from a certain town, or Yosele the tailor or Malke the baker. It was assumed that if you ended up in the woods, you had lost all or most of your family members. When you fled in a family group, you stayed together, and when coming across another group in hiding, you moved on so as to keep the numbers small.
How did they survive? At the end of the war, those who survived came out of the woods mostly shoeless, thin and bony, with few if any belongings. You ask how they managed to stay alive? Having made it this far, these Jews had decided to fight back and try to save themselves. This didn’t allow for sentiment or religious tradition. Awadje and others went out at night to steal vegetables, kill a (“chaza”) pig or catch a chicken from village farms. Yes, they ate whatever they needed to stay alive. Partisans operating in the area might give a blanket and sometimes a gun. When people got sick and died — or shot and killed by the Germans — they were left behind, as there was no time for burials. Bodies were left in the swamps, under trees, in streams, never to be identified. It was only much later that individuals were able to name their lost loved ones to authorities by adding their names to a list. Awadje, however, couldn’t speak of losing his family. He never named his wife or children to anyone – never.
A family lost, a family found So that is how they met – Awadje Cytrin and Sheindel Liebe Davidowic. He lost two little girls, she had two little girls. She needed a husband and a father. He needed a wife and a family. They had no formal engagement or marriage, just a mutual understanding of love, protection and safety in the woods.
As the war ended and they were liberated, the family went to a displaced persons camp in Lechfeld, Germany. There was food, medical help and a place for Sheindel to give birth to her third daughter, Lea. Four years later, they traveled by military ship, the “General MacRae,” to America. Sheindel and Awadje started their lives again, but never could forget their experience. Indeed, they were haunted by it every day of their lives, as are Elke and Jospeh today.
Epilogue I never learned the name of my father’s first wife or the names of his two daughters. He never talked much about the war, nor did my mother. My half sisters spoke little of it but do recount some stories today. They are 75 and 73 years old now. They cannot believe how they lived, how they survived. They know it happened, but sometimes can’t understand why they were spared. As a child of Holocaust survivors, I think about their hardship all the time. I am amazed that my parents were able to provide a home for us in a new country. They both worked in factories to support us and put together weddings for me and my sisters. They became American citizens but never voted in elections. Although their children and grandchildren created new identities in America, their parents expected little of life and mostly endured it.
I remember my parent’s friends well. Some had numbers tattooed on their arms from their concentration camp experience. All spoke Yiddish and broken English with heavy accents, even today. All worked hard in factories or started little one- person businesses, some more successful than others. My mother had been a seamstress in Poland, so I always had hand-made skirts and dresses. My father used his experience as a harness maker to work as a springer in an upholstery factory. Because at age six I spoke no English, I was sent to a Jewish day school was the first in my family to complete high school and graduate university. Insert?–Imagine the pride my family felt when I was named Vice President of a Fortune 100 corporation! (Later I found my true passion and mission in Judaic education). Like most newcomers who worked in factories by day, my sisters went to night school to learn English and a bit of history – just enough to say the Pledge of Allegiance and become American citizens.
As a youngster I was embarrassed by my parent’s inability to speak like an American. I spoke for them, translated for them, read and wrote for them. Later I would became proud of them. My regrets for their horrible life experiences are many, especially with regard to not asking about my father’s early life and first family. I felt this deeply as I sat near him when he was dying. Some heartaches never go away completely nor dissipate, even a little.TWO LOST, TWO FOUND
I dream to ask, Who were they, Tateh? What were their names? The two sisters I might have shared Who were snatched from both of us.
How can I ask, What were they like, Tateh? The two children whose names are Mentioned at Kaddish by only one of us.
Why don’t I ask, How did you escape the trains, Tateh? Hide in the woods for two years, Tateh? Keep warm under the snow, steal in order to eat, SURVIVE, Find courage to start again, Tateh?
I will not ask, For fear of seeing your grief, Tateh-leh, For fear of feeling your pain, Tateh-leh. FIFTY-FIVE YEARS OF SILENCE! I cannot name THESE MY SISTERS, But they are not forgotten!