Hunter College H.S. Holocaust Survivors

Susanne’s War

    - Susanne Klejman Bennet, '55

Susanne is one of the rare survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, which was totally destroyed by the Nazis in 1943.

I was born in Warsaw on August 11th 1938; I was just a year old when the Nazis invaded Poland. I was an only child. My parents both had parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, and young cousins, all of whom were murdered or disappeared in 1943. My father, John Jacob Klejman, was an antiquities dealer. He had a well- known art gallery in Warsaw, and my mother, Halina, worked with him. Both my parents were educated abroad because the university in Warsaw had a tiny quota for Jews. My father went to the Sorbonne in Paris, planning to become a doctor, and my mother to college in Lausanne, studying pharmacology.

My parents never wanted to talk about the war. My father simply shut down, and my mother felt everyone was gone and so there was simply no point. I remember that she had terrible nightmares for many years after the war. They refused to apply for any reparations: no monetary value could be put on human life.

Before the war the ghetto in Warsaw was very, very small. The Germans vastly expanded it, taking over a huge area of the neighborhood around the tiny little ghetto. Then they proceeded to pack it not only with all the Jews they could get their hands on in Warsaw; they also brought people in from all over Poland.

Until then my parents had never thought of themselves as particularly different from their non-Jewish friends. Their circle of friends and clients, many of them European diplomats, was very cosmopolitan. They traveled in Europe, spoke French and German in addition to Polish, and led a comfortable middle-class life.

When the Germans first took over the ghetto area in the fall of 1939, my parents traded homes with a non-Jewish artist friend, exchanging their house for a duplex apartment in a building that became part of the ghetto. My father moved us, my mother’s mother and his whole family into that duplex apartment – his mother, his three sisters, the husband of one of the sisters, two brothers, a fourteen-year-old niece, an in-law who was caring for a baby whose parents were traveling abroad. They were able to take some possessions and also some money with them, so they had the means of buying food for a while.

My mother’s mother would go every single day and visit her two brothers and their families in another part of the ghetto. One nephew who had been studying in England came back to Poland as the war broke out to be with his family. He was the oldest of five in that family – three boys and a girl. One day my grandmother did not return. She just disappeared.

One of the first people that my father found killed in the ghetto was Roman Kramsztyk, who was a close friend and a very well-known Polish artist. He was the one person that my father did talk about. My father found his body with a portfolio of his chalk drawings lying next to it. Somehow he managed to get the portfolio out of the ghetto and it survived the war. He returned most of the drawings to a distant relative of Kramsztyk’s; they included some drawings of figures in the ghetto. I have one of a woman lying either asleep or dead on the steps of one of the buildings in the ghetto. I was the model for the baby lying next to her.

Though I was very young there are things I do remember about the ghetto. I remember brick walls being built, the walls going up. I remember beggars on the streets coming into the buildings. Our building had old-fashioned, etched metal stairs, of the type one sees in school buildings. I still shrink inside when I come across such stairs. I remember a man who came into our building to beg, and the man upstairs from us shoved this poor man down the stairs. At the beginning there was a large gap between the people who considered themselves very middle-class and the very, very poor people who were pushed in from the little ghettoes outside. This middle class did not feel they had anything in common with the poor and were trying to keep what little they had for their own families.

One of my uncles who had been educated at Zwickau ran into one of his fellow engineering students, who was now a German commandant. The German arranged for him, his wife and sisters to work in a factory outside the gates, supposedly a slightly protected situation. Every day they would all go out to work. And every day they’d be checked back in. My mother was also part of a group working outside the ghetto. The women’s work was sewing.

One day early in 1943 my uncle and the others working in the factory simply didn’t come back. My mother was under the impression that the German really had tried to protect them somewhat, but there was nothing that could be done. They simply would clear the factories out and send a new group. But no one really believed then the Germans were going to just kill those people. Many, like my uncle, had studied abroad in Germany and had German friends. No one believed there was such a thing as an extermination program.

That day in 1943 when my relatives didn’t come back my parents decided they had to get me out, and they made arrangements with friends on the outside who were not Jewish with whom they had somehow been able to stay in contact. One of them, Wladislaw Brzozowski, bribed a Polish policeman to take me out of the ghetto.

I remember my mother dressed me in a little white coat. I was blue-eyed with white-blond hair and looked like a typical little Polish girl. We just walked out. I don’t remember saying goodbye to my parents.

I must have spent that night somewhere like a cellar, because the friend who had arranged my escape, and who survived Auschwitz, told my mother after the war that my coat was covered in coal dust and I was hungry. In the morning this friend took me on a tram. I threw up on the tram and got my coat even more dirty, and I was vastly embarrassed. It’s so strange to realize what odd things one remembers.

Eventually he took me to the place in the countryside where my parents had a little summer cottage. It was across the road from a manor that had belonged to friends of my parents. My pre-war nanny, who came from a German family, had lived there from the beginning of the war. I was given her last name and we pretended she was my mother. We had a few rather skinny chickens and a small vegetable garden, growing onions, radishes, and potatoes. I had a pet turtle, which ended up run over by a German tank from the manor, which was then the regional Gestapo headquarters for the area. It was about 13 miles outside of Warsaw, and when Warsaw burned a year later, in 1944, we could see the red sky. The Nazis had German Shepherds and I was more terrified of the dogs than of the Nazis because they would sic the dogs on people. I like dogs, and we have had many over the years, but I still am frightened whenever I see a German Shepherd.

A few days after I got out, which was shortly before the ghetto uprising, my mother was with her work group. The Polish woman who was checking people in was a high-school classmate of hers from Madame Lange’s school and said to my mother, “Just don’t come back. Keep going and I’ll check you back in.” My mother had no way of contacting my father at that point, but they had agreed that if there was ever a chance for either of them to get out they would take it.

My mother stayed with several friends around the city. There were two couples who knew where I was. My mother then somehow ended up with a group of nuns who were working with the displaced. When one of the nuns died they gave my mother her habit to wear. A few days later the nuns were rounded up. There was a staging area, the Umschlagplatz, from which, beginning in 1942, people were shipped out to the Treblinka extermination camp on the trains. When the nuns were about to be shipped out, one of the Germans on the platform said to the Mother Superior that one of the commanders was a Catholic and she should go see if he could help her. My mother described how her foot was literally on the bottom rung of the train car when the Mother Superior came running down the station waving a little slip of paper saying that they were free to go.

So 13 nuns showed up on the doorstep of the cottage where I was out in the country. I was five now and had a Polish name, the name of the nanny who was posing as my mother. I recognized my mother, whom I had last seen about a year earlier, but I had the sense not to say anything because of course the nuns didn’t know. The nuns stayed with us for several weeks and then they went on to a sister convent.

My mother had developed very bad rheumatism from lying on stone floors. She was ill enough to have a good excuse not to go on with them. Of course the nuns knew she wasn’t one of them, though they didn’t know she was Jewish.

My nanny used to go to the little local town to buy things at the farmer’s markets. I went during the day to a small school in the basement of a local church, crossing a brook with small fish and fat black leeches. The younger children were ostensibly raising rabbits and the older children were actually studying but they were not allowed to use Polish textbooks. And if they felt the Germans were coming to check up, they would shove the textbooks under the rabbit hutches. The priest thought I was Catholic, and I still have the prayer book he gave me.

My nanny’s sister came regularly to visit us, and had a little girl my age. I used to play with her and with the children at the school. The area in which we lived in the country had forests and fields, and a nearby market town. I remember very vividly a time when we were in the market and a couple of bombs fell, and I saw a goat with its legs blown off. It is odd to think of the memories that make an impression on a child.

My father got out of the Warsaw Ghetto through the sewers during the April 1943 uprising. He hid with the same people who had helped my mother. He had several very close escapes. At one point he had to jump out of a second-floor window onto the back of a garbage truck as it drove by. He managed to convince the truck driver that he was a British parachutist who had parachuted in to help free Poland. He was in Warsaw until the end of the war, hiding in various places. For a while he was in the basement of a company called Wedel, the best chocolate factory in Poland. The Wedel family hid him in the basement of their store, which was near his antique shop. Periodically one of the Wedel sisters would bring him water and some food. One day a bomb fell and cut the cellar in half, and she was killed on the other side of the cellar from where my father was hiding. He did not come to where my mother and I were until the Russians came into Warsaw at the end of the war.

My father had a bullet fragment in his back that didn’t really bother him, and he never told me how he got it. He developed what we thought was Alzheimer’s and had to retire when he was 70. When he died a doctor who performed an autopsy of his brain called me and asked if my father had been a boxer. I said no, and the doctor said my father had brain damage of the type that only a boxer or somebody who had been hit in the head a lot would have. That could only have happened during the war. But he had never talked about it. Ever. He said, “When I retire we’ll talk about all of this, and I’ll tell you all,” but by then his memories were gone.

When the war was over, we moved back to Warsaw, and my parents started to look for their families. But they were all lost. We didn’t have very much after the war. There was a great shortage of food. We had access to bread, somehow or other. We ate a lot of bread with thin slices of onion, and we didn’t have milk. I remember one day bananas became available in the market; I had never seen them before. Anti-Semitism was rampant after the war. One day a Catholic friend of my parents was attacked on the street by people who thought she was Jewish. She came to our apartment and told my parents they had to get out of Poland, that there was no safe future for me there.

We went to Sweden in 1947 and lived in Stockholm for four years. My father had restarted his business so we travelled a lot during the years we were in Sweden because my father had friends all over Europe. Then we went to Mexico City for nine months because my father wanted to study pre-Columbian archaeology and my parents had a number of friends from Poland who had survived the war and had gone to Mexico. I skipped two grades and went to seventh grade at the American School and studied English with the 18-year-old daughter of one of these friends, and I was also learning Spanish.

We came to New York City when I was 11. By that time I had moved 13 times. My father and mother opened an art gallery. I was really independent (I had spent a lot of time more or less on my own) and enrolled myself at PS 59 in Manhattan. I learned English very quickly, while my parents found learning the language more difficult and weren’t very fluent. After school I ran a lot of errands, did the grocery shopping, went to the dry cleaner, and shopped at sales for clothing and makeup that my parents sent to friends in Poland. One day in school we had an air raid drill. We were all standing out in the hallway and I said to the teacher, “This is ridiculous. If it were a real air raid none of us would survive this.” I was promptly sent to the principal.

Then I passed the exam for Hunter. In 1955, my senior year, a group of us went down to Washington with the international relations club, and we met Nixon, who was then Vice President, at his office in the Capitol. He sat on the edge of his desk, swinging a foot and telling us about the duties of the vice president. He was charming. When we showed up at our hotel in Washington we were turned away because we had two Puerto Rican girls in our group. We marched down to the local Y and stayed there instead. It was a lesson for us, because at Hunter so few of us had been aware of anybody being different. I think I was very naïve about how people were treated here: after a world where you were murdered if you were different, the gradations of racial and religious prejudice here were not so apparent.

After Hunter I went to Wellesley, where I studied history of art and Spanish. I met my husband in my junior year and we were married when we graduated. We spent a year in Berkeley, where he received his masters degree. When we came back to Cambridge, I got a masters of library science and went to work at Harvard’s Widener library as a subject cataloguer because by then I knew many languages: Polish, Swedish, French, Spanish and English. We were in India for three years, my husband with our State Department and I working at the American School as a librarian. My oldest son was born in New Delhi. We went back to Harvard so that my husband could finish his PhD, and eventually we ended up in Washington. My husband held senior positions with the government, and I continued to work as a school librarian, eventually getting an M.A. in Art History and Archaeology, which I enjoyed studying, though I never worked in the field. We have three children, Michael, James and Halina, and seven grandchildren.

My father became a very successful dealer in New York with major American museums among his clients. He was a donor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and my parents’ names are now inscribed on the staircase there. It is amazing when you consider what they had been through, the war, the Warsaw ghetto, bombardment and starvation, barely surviving and coming to New York with little in the way of possessions. Truly, the United States was a land of renewal and hope for those of us who survived the Holocaust.

My mother finally spoke a bit about the war when my daughter was taking a course in ethics in high school. She felt that whether one survived or died was a matter of pure chance. Believing in a higher power is difficult for many of us.

Among my parents’ friends and clients were many of the Monuments Men, Americans who were sent to Europe to rescue art and artifacts. I knew them when I was a teenager, and like my parents they never spoke about the war, and it was only when the book and movie came out that I found out what they had done during and after the war. I also never knew that there were other Holocaust survivors among my fellow students at Hunter College High School – I, at least, never spoke about it at school.

I have had a good life, but the Holocaust has left its mark. Having gone through the Holocaust has made me very introverted, and I don’t trust people that much. There are odd things that are simply not rational. My daughter said to me that whenever she talked about buying a house I always told her it had to have exits on two different streets and not be on a corner. I still cannot get near a German Shepherd. Periodically I find myself in a school building or somewhere where they have stairs like the ones that man was thrown down, and I just get out of there as fast as I can.

During my adulthood my mother called me every single day to make sure she knew where I was. She did the same thing when my children were away at college, using up all the space on their answering machines making sure she knew they were safe. When my husband worked for the government and had to go to Germany for several weeks I had to go with him. I felt totally claustrophobic. I still cringe when I hear German being spoken. I think of my lost family every evening before I fall asleep.

I can not ever forgive and forget.

- February 2021

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