Hunter College H.S. Holocaust Survivors

My Mother Rachel and the First Hannukah Candle

- Frances Zynstein Oz ‘60

In 2010, Fran wrote this history of her mother’s courage that led to her forbidden birth in a Rumanian Ghetto in the middle of World War II.

Tomorrow is the first night of Hannukah, December 1, 2010 on the Christian Calendar and Kislev 24, 5771, on the Jewish calendar. Tomorrow will mark the 9th Yor Tzeit , the 9th anniversary of the death of my mother z’l’, of blessed memory, and if she had lived, her 93rd birthday. I discovered only recently that my mother’s birthday came at the beginning of December and was not December 24th, the day we had always celebrated it.

In fact we had a long standing humorous anecdote about her birthday falling on December 24th, because the other part of her birthday history was that her mother’s name was Mary, Mertcha in Yiddish, and her father’s name, was Yosel or Josephl. So our family would gather together in the evening of every December 24th, bringing presents to celebrate the birth of Mary and Joseph’s child, as did so many others on that same evening. This child was born Jewish as well, but she was named Rachel. And that’s where the story with its similarities began and ended, I always thought.

Besides that story, our family heard another story about my mother’s life, a story that came from her own lips almost every day of her life and was passed on to almost anyone who would listen to it. Being the oldest child, I spent a lot of time near her, and I must have heard this story more than a thousand times. It was the story of my birth.

It was the summer of 1942. My mother, Rachel Zynstein, her mother, Mertcha Kupitz, three brothers, Avrum, Sheya, and Shloima Kupitz, and two sisters, Hannah and Bina Kupitz and my father, Soloman Zynstein, were all Jewish laborers working in a Nazi occupied ghetto in the Ukraine, called Brailov The men worked as tailors, and women like my aunts worked in the shop as seamstresses or as housekeepers. They had been selected from the Rumanian Jewish Ghetto of Zmerinka to which they had all escaped after the Germans had invaded Poland and burnt my mother’s town of Krasnabrod to the ground.

They had been told that because they were such skilled laborers, they were being given the privilege of working and staying alive. They worked in a tailoring shop mending and repairing German uniforms and considered themselves lucky to be alive, until one day my father, who was fitting a German officer with a white suit, overheard him say that in a few days the Germans were planning an “Accion,” an action. That meant there would be killing. This time the target would be pregnant women and other women and children up to a certain age. Basically, all un-useful people, that is the weak, women and children were to be gotten rid of.

In later years, I would find out that that region where this all happened was called Transnitstriya, which held the killing fields of the Ukraine. It was especially notorious for the killing of children at the hands of the Germans.

My mother was nine months pregnant. Immediately,a plan was made by my Aunt Hannah. In the German household where she worked as a maid she had also learned about the upcoming action against women and children. My aunt was blond and blue eyed, and the Germans did not know that she was a Jewess. She could have saved herself, for all women were in danger, but she decided that my pregnant mother should be saved, so that there could be a future. I owe my life to Aunt Hannah.

My mother was led out of the Brailov Ghetto in the middle of the night by a Russian woman, a school teacher, I was told, who knew the surrounding area and the habits of the German soldiers well, so that she was able to sneak my mother out into the forest, across a river and back into the Zmerinka Ghetto, their first ghetto, where it was now much safer for Jews to be. This was because the Zmerinka ghetto was under Rumanian and not Ukrainian and German control, while the Germans controlled Brailov.

My mother was brought before the head of the Yuden Reich, the ghetto’s Jewish committee. He was a man by the name of Dr. Hirshman who was very strict and not especially well liked. Upon seeing my mother he realized at once what she wanted, and he also realized the dangerous situation that she had put him in. According to Nazi law it was illegal to deliver a Jewish baby. All pregnant Jewish women, when found, were to be shot with their unborn child. The husband if found was to be shot as well.

My mother pleaded for her life and for me, the life inside her, by saying, “In the days of Moses the Egyptians tried to do the same thing to the Jews as is being done today, and we survived. The Greeks and the Romans also tried to annihilate us, but we survived. Where are these ancient peoples today? In museums,” she said. “But we are still here, and we must survive.”

In later years she confided to me that she had recited a part from a play that she had been in, when she was a member of a Zionist Youth Organization in her hometown in Poland. My mother always had a dramatic flair. Well, she must have put on the performance of her life, because Dr. Hirshman, who was not known for showing much compassion, relented. He told my mother that he would save her life on one condition. This condition was that if the child was born a girl, it should be named after his mother and if it was a boy after his father. Dr. Hirshman had no family of his own left and no one to carry on his family’s name.

My mother agreed. She was taken to a basement cellar and there I was born. My mother would tell me that there were men praying in a makeshift synagogue in the area where I was born and that she had to hide herself from the men’s eyes for reasons of modesty. She told me that it was somewhere between Mincha, the afternoon prayers, and Mariv, the evening prayers, that I came into the world. As promised, I was given the name “Frida” after Dr. Hisrshman’s mother. Later on, in the ghetto as the only hidden child my name became a symbol for the word “Freedom”.

Word was secretly sent to the Brailov Ghetto that I had been born and was alive and well. One week later, my father and my mother’s entire family--my mother’s three brothers, my grandmother and her two sisters, also escaped form the Brailov Ghetto. They joined my mother in her hiding place in Zmerinka, and so, for the only time in my life, at the age of one week, I had a large family around me.

But life would not be kind to the entire family. When the Germans marched into the Brailov Ghetto to proceed with their “action” they found no one. They found out that the Jews had escaped to Zmerinka and followed them there to bring them back. In addition to my mother’s family about three hundred Jews had fled Brailov. At first the Germans tricked Jews into coming out of their hiding places, by announcing that they wanted to “honor all of the skilled laborers of Brailov;” that they should come out to the Street Labor Festival where they would be honored. Whoever believed the Germans and came out was shot. This included some Rumanian Jews who were not escapees from Brailov.

Eventually, the Germans went from house to house, pounding on the doors, telling people to come out. One of my mother’s brothers, Sheya z’l’, of blessed memory, who passed away just a few weeks ago, would say that you could hear the Germans marching from a mile away, and that when they came around, their footsteps sounded like thunder. My mother’s youngest brother, Sol, who beside myself, is the only one still alive who can tell this story, would say that to this day he regrets the fact that he let his mother, my grandmother, go the door. It was a fast day, the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz; she had been fasting, and she was dressed as if she were going to Synagogue.

According to my Uncle Sol, everyone came out and stood in a circle, that is everyone except for me, since as an infant I would have been shot immediately. I was hidden by a woman named Helen Huber, who was Rumanian, and therefore did not have to come out.

The German officer, a general called De Graff, was standing next to Dr. Hirshman, the head of the Yuden Reich, and looked at my mother’s large family. He recognized my father and remarked that he was an excellent tailor. He said that he wanted my father to remain alive long enough to finish making him his white suit. De Graff also noticed that in the circle there was someone who was a good shoemaker; the general wanted a new pair of shoes to go with his white suit. This shoemaker pulled my uncle towards him and said that he was his son and also a good shoemaker. So my uncle remained alive. At this point Dr. Hirshman, knowing that my mother had a child who bore his mother’s name interjected and said that the tailor’s wife should also be kept alive. The General allowed it, but then he waved his hand and said: “It’s too big a family.” Those on one side of his hand, my mother, father, and two uncles were told to stay.

They stayed and lived, while my grandmother, two aunts and another uncle were ordered to go and join a larger group of people who had been gathered together. These people were marched into the forest where they were told to strip and then to dig a large pit; then they were told to lie in the pit where they were shot in the head. Reports came back that my Aunt Hannah, who had saved my life by organizing my mother’s escape from the Brailov Ghetto, refused to strip and was shot with her clothes on.

The bodies were piled crisscross on top of each other, and the entire mass of hundreds moved about in agony for days. Only eighteen people from the Brailov Ghetto survived.

This all happened one week after I was born. I survived in the Zmerinka Ghetto hiding in an abandoned basement with my parents, two uncles and some of their friends. Some of my mother’s friends wanted her to choke me, because they were afraid that my crying would cause unwanted attention. But by some miracle I survived, and in 1945 at the age of three, I, my parents and my mother’s two brothers, were liberated from the Zmerinka ghetto by the Russian Army.

So when my mother passed away on Erev Channukah in 2001, the night of the first candle, I felt that the great statement of resistance and courage that had been made by this little 4 foot 10 inch Jewish woman in her lifetime, the only woman who had defied the Nazis’ decree that no Jewish child should be born alive in that year, had in fact been verified and validated by Hashem.

I felt that my mother’s life rightly symbolized the little vial of oil which was found in the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem on Erev Hannukah, the eve of Hannukah after the Temple had been defiled by the Greeks, and that my little mother’s life was like the flame that came from this little vial of oil which wasn’t supposed to last even one night, but which lasted eight nights instead.

And then I realized something else. The date December 24th, which we always thought was my mother’s birthday, was really Kislev 24, the first night of Hannukah, and that probably when she arrived in the United States and was asked what her birthday was she must have said Kislev 24, and then when asked which month Kislev correlated to on the English calendar, she was probably told to say “December”. So that’s how the early story had gotten started, but now I realized that my mother’s spirit and Neshuma, her soul, was really the essence of Hannukah, the struggle of the few to bring light into the world and overcome the great darkness of evil that sometimes falls on this Earth.

After spending time in a Displaced Persons’ camp, Fran and her family came to New York, where she attended elementary school. After graduating from Hunter, Fran earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from City College of the City University and a Masters degree from the College of New Rochelle. A retired teacher and writer, she has two children and grandchildren.

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