Hunter College H.S. Holocaust Survivors

Holding Back the Tide

- Edith Tennenbaum Shapiro,‘52

Edith and her sister, Selma Tennenbaum Rossen ’54, survived the Holocaust in Poland by hiding in attics, cellars and bunkers, aided by individuals recognized as righteous Gentiles.

Edith:

After my sister Selma settled our late father’s estate, I thanked her that as usual she had taken on both the responsibility and the grunt work of family tasks. She said, "If not for you there wouldn’t be our family." I didn’t understand at first, but then realized that she was referring to episodes during the Nazi occupation in World War II. Our town, Zloczow in Poland (now Ukraine) was occupied by the USSR from 1939-1941; by the Nazis from ’1941-1944 and then again by the Russians.

We hid in cellars during bombings from both Russians and Germans and when "the fronts" brought fighting to our streets. When the Nazi akzions against Jews erupted we hid again, in the attic over the factory that had belonged to my grandfather; other times in "bunkers." Mother, children, Mother’s mother, Grandmother Bessie Horowitz, other people hid; Father was usually in the factory, "working," but he was also keeping watch. I visited Zloczow in 1991 and again in 1993 and the factory attic was still there exactly as I remembered, but I could not identify the houses with the bunkers.

As a child, I eavesdropped on adult conversations. I evidently figured out that was the only way to learn what was happening. Children were told how to behave, but not "why". Often the adults forgot we were nearby or assumed we would not understand and talked openly.

The film, "Life is Beautiful," was seen by some as a travesty: A father conceals his young son in a concentration camp, contrives a charade, persuades the boy that their experience is only a game. It resonated with me as an allegory. Under infinitely less dire conditions and complexity our parents also tried to hide the truth from us, to maintain a façade of normalcy in the ghetto, in hiding. I sensed the deception, and eavesdropped.

My late cousin, Fred Sten, kept a journal during the war, published recently in English. He said that I was more difficult to deal with than Selma because I understood more.

During the first Russian occupation we were forced to leave our home. My parents, both lawyers, and grandparents, factory owners, had their passports imprinted with "the paragraph". It meant "undesirable elements." The factory was nationalized. Our belongings requisitioned. We were forced out of our apartment. I remember mother leaning over the stair banister as the dining room buffet, a favorite piece my parents had bought at some major furniture exhibit, was being carted away by soldiers. She was saying, "I will never again become attached to things." She kept her word and after the war lived much more modestly than she had to, except that she accumulated jewelry. Jewelry bought life during the war.

My paternal grandparents, Laura and Leon Tenenbaum (as we then spelled it) escaped from the Russians to neighboring Lwow (Lvov in Ukrainian) in 1939 – 1940.

We had a nanny, Hania, who lived with us up to the time of the ghetto.

One day during the Nazi occupation, I overheard that children were in great danger. Adults who could work would be safe, but not children. Parents could not protect their children. Children were being given away to strangers who could protect them.

I had seen a corpse of a man killed in our backyard when the Nazis first came. The body lay in the courtyard for days. A balcony circled the courtyard and connected apartments and led to my friend Susan’s apartment. To reach her house, on Nanny’s instructions, I walked with my face to the wall so as to not look and with my handkerchief pressed to my face to avoid the foul odor. After days some young Jewish men took the body away.

I saw no connection between that dead man and us. I don’t remember thinking that could happen to me. I was about 6 or 7 years old at the time. But I began to miss friends. One child after another disappeared without warning; some went "into hiding;" others I overheard had been…ominously said… "caught." My friend Susan from across the balcony disappeared, was "caught". She did come back. She told me that she had been "in the castle" (the local prison) and then released. Another friend was there too; she had red spots on her face. Suisan survived the war but we never saw the other girl again.

One day Father said that we were going to visit a lovely lady and gentleman, Mr. and Mrs. Kora-Padlewski, new acquaintances who were very eager to have us as guests. Two little suitcases packed, we went and had a pleasant stay in a beautiful apartment, enjoying food we had not had for long time. Chocolate, I think. I had one moment of panic during that visit. We were put to sleep, I on the living room couch, my sister on two armchairs drawn together. I protested. I was afraid that the chairs would pull apart and she would fall and get hurt or perhaps be pulled apart too.

Outside an akzion was going on. After it was over, we returned home. A bizarre feature of these hunts was that people would hide for the duration, and after it was over the survivors resumed what then passed for normal. Adults worked, children stayed in the apartment. We had lessons with cousin Mania. We rarely went outdoors.

It was Mr. Kora-Padlewski who warned Father about the impending ak\ions. One day he told Father that Jews were going to be walled in a ghetto. That would make the hunts more efficient. He suspected that our town was slated to become Judenrein, free of Jews. I overheard more. Mr. and Mrs. Kora-Padlewski offered to adopt me. Me alone. With my coloring I could pass for an Aryan, but they dared not risk taking my dark-eyed, dark-haired, Jewish looking sister.

Only one little suitcase packed this time, Father walked with me to the now familiar first floor apartment on the best street in town, in a building across a courtyard from the Gestapo headquarters. My hosts were Volksdeutsche, ethnic Germans who had lived in Poland before the war, and were now privileged because of their origins. I did not understand that subtlety at the time.

When Father was leaving, I cried. Mr. and Mrs. Kora-Padlewski comforted me and I fell asleep. Next morning Mr. Kora-Padlewski said that he and his wife were taking a day off in the country, that I was to be good and wait for the maid who was coming momentarily. They left.

The maid did not come. I tried to busy myself drawing, reading. I heard shots. Heavy drapes hid the windows. I pushed them aside, peeked, saw people being driven forward by men in uniform. Mostly the street was empty and quiet. I wandered from room to room. I came to a narrow kitchen window in the back of the house. I was very calm. I don’t remember planning it, but I opened the window, made sure no one was about, slid down against the wall, ran for two blocks and banged on the gate of a house where I knew my family was hidden in a bunker. I called out, "Mommy, it’s me." The gate opened; hands pulled me in. I learned years later that when the people in the bunker heard the banging, they thought it was "the end."

Our parents made one more attempt to give us away. Nanny who moved to her own place outside the ghetto took us both. In her apartment, I cried, tore my handkerchief to shreds, and when Hania went out to buy food I climbed out of a window taking my sister along, she says. A neighbor saw us and brought us back. Hania returned us to our parents saying she was too afraid to keep us.

Years later Father told me that mother had mixed feelings about our return. She was afraid for us, but also had not wanted to separate us and had opposed his plans initially. Father wanted to bring his parents back to Zloczow. My behavior, he said, was the catalyst, an omen. If we were to survive we would survive together. We would somehow reunite with our grandparents. We would escape to Warsaw, pass as Poles.

We were on the first lap of our escape in an apartment outside the ghetto waiting for our "contact" from "the underground". I have no memory of leaving the old apartment and coming to the new one. I remember playing outdoors with some older girls in the new place.

A man came one evening. Mother handed him her diamond earrings; he gave her some papers. The adults talked. I did not hear anything. But over the next few days, our parents said that we were to have new names: I was Danuta, my sister was Krystyna, mother and father were respectively Irena and Stefan. Surname: Bulski. Grandmother Bessie also had a new name that I don’t remember. From this day on we were all Catholics and would be moving to Warsaw where nobody would know that we were someone else before, that we were Jews. We learned Our Father and Hail Mary and were given crosses to wear around our necks, and beads called rosaries that we were to learn how to use in prayer.

I am not clear on the chronology of certain events. Father made several attempts to reunite us with his parents, Laura and Leon Tennenbaum who had fled as I mentioned to escape deportation to Siberia during the Soviet occupation. Eventually, Grandmother Laura came, but not Grandfather who was to follow later. It was safer for a woman to travel, which was why grandmother came first and alone. While we were in the ghetto, both grandmothers became sick with typhus. I had been sent away, and when I returned I was told that Grandmother Laura had gone away. But my sister said that Grandma Laura was in bed, Father held a mirror to her mouth, and he cried. I knew Grandmother Laura was dead.

Grandfather was not told either. I remember that there was an elaborate hoax: a cousin was asked to write to Grandfather pretending to be his wife. Grandfather refused to join us when, as originally planned, Father sent a man to fetch him. I remember our disappointment. Father said years later that he suspected Grandfather knew Grandmother had died and did not want to confront the truth. What Grandfather said was if he were caught, we and the Poles who helped us would all be killed. He was confident he could take care of himself. He killed himself with a cyanide pill on the way to a "labor" camp: I’ve known this since I was a child, but how I heard it and from whom I don’t know.

While in the apartment outside the ghetto, in 1943, in April early one morning we were awakened by violent knocking. A Polish woman shouted, "They were in the next street looking for you. People told them there are no Jews here so they left. They might come back. The ghetto is surrounded. People say it’s the end. You must hide." I remember shaking in the cold while Grandmother Bessie helped me dress.

Father knew that there was a bunker in an apartment nearby that belonged to Jews forced to leave it for the ghetto. We hid there for several days. I read by candlelight, "What Katy did in School," by Susan Coolidge. I found a copy of that book in English in a used book shop on a recent trip to Canada.

After a few days, we returned to our apartment, everyone dressed and washed and we set out surrounded by several neighbors, led by a woman I knew, Pani Helena Skrzeszewska. She was a friend and our summer landlord; we used to rent rooms in her cottage in a nearby village during the summer. After what seemed to me an endless march we arrived and were greeted by my Aunt Nusia Szterszus and Cousin Fredzio (Sten in Israel) whom Helena was sheltering. We spent the next 15 months in a room in the cottage, in a bunker and in a cellar under the barn. After many close calls we were liberated by the Russians. Some Jews paid Poles or Ukrainians to hide them, but whatever money or jewelry my parents had went for expenses, nothing else. Our guardians were people of courage and character and good Christians.

How Helena came to rescue us I learned only as an adult. The "contact" had come while we were hiding but the neighbors took him for an "agent provocateur" and denied our presence. In despair, Father was planning on poisoning all of us with cyanide tablets he had secured from our cousin Dr. Reichard, who did himself commit suicide as did his wife. Helena arrived, sent by Aunt. Fortunately the neighbors recognized her. She said to Father, "Come with me. The war will be over soon."

A few months after liberation Father saw Mr. Kora-Padlewski in a trolley in nearby Lwow, ran up and said, "I’ll never forget what you did for us. I’ll help you now in any way I can." Mr. Kora-Padlewski laughed and said, "Mr. T didn’t you guess. I am a Jew like you. I just had more nerve." He explained that his wife was so terrified and grieved on the day of the akzion that he had to get her away, afraid that she would have a breakdown. He was apologetic that the maid had not come. She was afraid to be out in the street during the akzion, she told him, even though she was not Jewish. Father and he parted and lost contact in the chaos of the times.

After the second Russian occupation in 1944 our part of Poland reverted to Ukraine. This time the Russians came as friends, but Father never forgave them for their treatment of our family during the first occupation. He blamed them for setting off the chain of events that caused our family to split up. Father felt that had his parents not been driven out, they too would have survived. He went along with the Russians ostensibly accepting their friendly overtures, until they trusted him enough to let him travel across the new border to Poland. He made arrangements for us to sneak on a train transporting Poles who volunteered for repatriation to Poland. We finally got to use our Polish papers. We left a few days after him never to return. We traveled towards Poland’s Western frontier, Father leading the way, arriving in liberated places often only days after the Germans retreated.

When we came to the US in 1946 our photograph was in the newspapers; a family that survived "whole". We were hardly whole. My Father lost both his parents. Mania, the cousin who gave us lessons perished with her family. A photo album survived that shows all of these people and the many others of our extended family and friends who perished.

Father tried for years to find the Kora-Padlewskis but had no luck. Perhaps they’ll see this account and identify themselves. My parents stayed in touch with Hania and our rescuers, who are enshrined as Righteous Gentiles in Israel.

After we came to the U.S., my parents who were penniless coped with some low level jobs; eventually Father earned an MBA from City College and had a successful career as in importer for a toy company. This job enabled him and mother to fulfill one of his dreams – worldwide travels.

After Hunter, Selma and I went to Barnard. I continued with medical school and Selma became an engineer. We both married young, Selma and her husband, Jack also an engineer have three children and six grandchildren, the oldest in college.

My first husband, Harris Shapiro, died in 1989. We had, and I have, two children, three grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Harris founded an engineering company run since his death by Selma, after a career as a corporate officer that paralleled her husband’s. In 2001, I married Sol Stein, an old acquaintance, a writer, editor and former publisher. I still practice, specializing in psychiatry.

Between us, Selma and I have children and grandchildren who are M.D.s, artists, academics – one successful business man.

Some 20 years ago, I wrote a detailed history of our family’s survival during World War II for my grandchildren. The oldest, then about six years old, erected an embankment to protect his sand city from the tide that relentlessly destroyed it every night. Next day, and every day after that, the tide stopped short of his defenses and this continued until we left for home. This episode served, I think, as an allegory for my activities during the events I recounted.

Since the death of our mother in 1993, my sister, Selma and her husband, Jack, have gathered our family in their house for Passover and Thanksgiving. I said to my sister, "Do you realize how lucky I was. I could just as well have brought disaster on us." She replied, "But you did not. And we were saved together." Father was with us until his death three years ago at 97 years of age. He lived long enough to know that he had become a great-great grandfather.

- April 2009

For more information and reading on our family, please see:

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