Remembering a childhood of fear and separation
by Marla Cohen & Sara Gilbert
It was 1990, and New City resident Lola Kaufman was reading an article in New York Magazine that caught her breath. Organizers of a conference were looking for “hidden children,” those youngest Holocaust survivors who had spent the war years sheltered and ultimately saved by non-Jews.
Kaufman, who is from Czortkow, a shtetl in Glacia that was part of Ukraine when the war broke out in 1939, had never really spoken about her experiences in hiding during the war. But she approached a friend from Poland about it and the two decided they would go to the Marriott in Manhattan together and be part of this first international gathering over the Memorial Day weekend in 1991.
“You know, I think I thought it was time to take some action,” says Kaufman, a diminutive woman with an easy smile and soft accent. “I wasn’t aware of anything else, so I thought I should just go see what’s going on.”
What she found was startling. Organizers were expecting maybe a few hundred people. Instead 1,600 former hidden children showed up. They came from all over the world — France, Germany, South America, Australia, Israel, England, the United States, Canada. All of them had childhood experiences that resonated with Kaufman’s.
The days of their lives that were supposed to be innocent and care free, were instead spent hungry and cold, terrified and confused. Their childhoods unfolded in dark cellars and attics, in convents and in monasteries. Separated from their mothers and fathers and siblings, they changed their names and identities, sometimes multiple times. Many never saw their families again.
The conference was eye-opening, not only because it drew so many of these former hidden children, but also because of what happened afterward. Those who had been hidden found they connected with one another for the first time on a scale that no one had imagined.
“My sister and I went to the first meeting in Manhattan,” says Freide Gorewitz, a West Nyack woman who was born in Romania. “It was a very emotional experience because a lot these hidden children never wanted to speak about it because they felt guilty they survived this whole thing.”
In the wake of the conference, however, they realized there were others around them with similar narratives and experiences. So many went home and formed their own groups, with regular meetings.
Kaufman and Gorewitz were no different. After the conference, they became a part of a Rockland County group for former hidden children. At its height, it numbered about 25 members who met monthly. But as they have aged, even these youngest Shoah survivors see their number dwindling. Today they meet every other month, and they number about 15, Kaufman says.
“I think it’s for the camaraderie,” says Kaufman. “There is support…. We needed each other and at one point, when we started to meet especially, we had to talk through our stories.”
They continue to meet in different homes, and they no longer really have to speak of the terrible past, or politics, which has been divisive. After two decades of meetings, they do it simply because they are friends.
IN A HOLE UNDER THE CELLAR
Lola Kaufman lived a comfortable life as an only child in a close family. Her parents lived next door to her maternal grandparents and she recalls eating dinner with her grandfather because “I wanted to be with him.”
Kaufman was nine years old. All of her family was gone, except for an uncle who survived because he’d joined the Soviet army as they retreated. She came with him and his family to the United States in 1949, after living in a Displaced Persons camp. There she dreamed of going to Israel, but her uncle insisted she come to America. They observed holidays, but were not terribly religious, though her town, Czortkow, was home to a Hasidic dynasty. It had been Polish when she was born, but in 1939, and when Germany invaded that country, their Soviet allies took over. In 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, they entered her town. She doesn’t have too many memories of her hometown, though she does have a few photos, and the town square, across the street from her home, is seared in her mind.
As she sat at the window looking out one day, she remembers a German soldier yelling at a man. The man had a beard, so she thinks he must have been a Jews. The man put up his hands but did not stop and the soldier shot him.
“I screamed and screamed.”
The Jews were put in a ghetto. There her father died of an illness, she’s not sure what, though suspects leukemia. Her mother worked as a seamstress for the Gestapo. And although she had the right papers to be out of the ghetto, one day an S.S. officer stopped her mother and two other women. He took them to a courtyard, lined them up and shot them.
“I was playing and I saw a lot of people going into my apartment and I wanted to see why so many were going into my grandparents.” It was Purim, and Kaufman went to her grandmother, who told her, “When you live through the war, you’ll have to put up a yahrtzeit for your mother. She never said ‘if.’ I survived because of my grandmother.”
It was her grandmother who found a way to sneak her out of the ghetto.
Eventually she ended up at a farm, where Anna Aksenczuk, took her in. There, she hid in a hole beneath a vegetable cellar along with a Jewish woman named Rose, her little girl, who was about two years younger than Kaufman and the woman’s son.
She was there about nine months. She wore the same dress, which is now in the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, the entire time. “When I took it off, it was able to walk away by itself, it was so infested with lice,” she says. “I don’t remember physically leaving the hold, I just remember being back in Czortkow.”
Although many of the people around her in America were survivors, they didn’t speak of their experiences, she says. It wasn’t until an author, Jane Marks, interviewed her that she began to say anything.
“Oh no, I didn’t talk. She gave me her card but I guess she didn’t think I’d call. She called me,” says Kaufman, who had to be coaxed into telling her story. Marks wrote “The Hidden Children,” published by Ballantine Books, in which Kaufman’s story appears along with those of other former hidden children.
“The first time, it was like a flood opened up, it was so emotional.”
TELLING THE STORIES
Even though former hidden children, like other survivors, didn’t initially divulge their pasts, they somehow found their own kind. It was like former generations of Jews who found landsmanschaften when they came to this country, the immigrant societies that were formed and named for members’ birthplace, according to Carol King, a social worker at Rockland Jewish Family Service.
King runs Café Europa, a program of the Holocaust Museum and Study Center in Spring Valley. The program, which serves local Holocaust survivors, is “about creating a space for them to be together,” says King.
For the hidden children, their experiences often vary based on how old they were when they had them. Some have no memories of their parents, says King, while others have preverbal ones and still others have those of a toddler, a young child or an adolescent.
They also are both survivors of the Holocaust themselves and are “2G,” or “second generation survivors,” according to King.
“When you think about it, nobody wanted to hear them, the survivors, when they came here,” she notes of their post-war experiences. “They were untouchable. If they did talk, they were told, ‘What are you talking about, we had it bad, too.’”
“Nobody was ready to hear them and the psychiatric community didn’t understand.”
Although Shoah survivors eventually began telling their stories individually, a mass telling began to happen after Steven Spielberg made the film,” Schindler’s List” in 1993. Following that, Spielberg put $12 million into videotaping the testimony of 52,000 Holocaust survivors living in 56 different countries.
Locally, the hidden children work with the Spring Valley museum, telling their stories in area schools. It’s an important aspect of the Museum’s work, according to Lisa Stenchever, the museum’s educational director.
“It’s very effective,” she says of the efforts of those who choose to share their stories. “It gives students a first-hand opportunity to learn. We do lessons with them, we have ‘The Hiding,’ [an audio program], but to have someone in front of them saying, ‘This person helped me and risked their life for me,’ it’s powerful and empowers the students.”
It isn’t just young students who feel that power, either. Joe Allen, a senior vice president at Active International in Pearl River, became friends with Cecile Kaufer, when he was working in an office in Chestnut Ridge in the late 1990s. As their friendship developed, snippets of Kaufer’s past in war-torn Poland and then Paris slipped out.
“She had a lot of material from that time, poems and stories she’d written. She had a lot of these things she was preserving, and she would show me some of them,” he said. “They were all very heartfelt. I could feel the pain she was feeling. After awhile I said we should write this book that would depict her particular story, her family’s story.”
It took about two years for them to write, “Good-Bye for Always: The Triumph of the Innocents.”
“It’s incredibly important to continue to tell the story,” says Allen. “We have a generation that in not too long a time, will be unable to tell these stories for themselves. So it’s very important that we find a mechanism to help them tell it while they still can.”
WE WERE LUCKY
Anne Weissmann is thankful her mother made her take piano lessons as a child.
Born in Belgium, Weissman was nine years old when the war began. And it was her piano teacher and her teacher’s mother who first hid her and her parents.
“Everyone who was hiding a Jew was putting their own life in danger too,” says Weissmann. “If caught they’d be shot just like us.”
But the piano teacher harbored them in a spare room upstairs. For a year and a half, Weissmann and her parents could not leave. During the day they stayed in bed, not able to walk on the floor or talk for fear that piano students below would hear.
“We were lucky though,” says Weissmann, because the piano teacher’s mother owned and ran the grocery store on the ground floor. Since the Weissmanns didn’t have food stamps they had to buy it on the black-market. They couldn’t walk on the streets because they were known in the neighborhood and someone might spot them.
One night, the piano teacher’s mother said that someone had found out she was hiding Jews and they were all in danger. They would have to leave immediately.
“My mother went to the Underground to ask them to find another hiding place for us three,” said Weissmann. But they told her that at this point in the war it would be impossible to find someone willing to hide anyone, it was already 1943. “They did give us false identity cards, but they couldn’t give my father one because he had a strong accent and couldn’t pass for being Belgian.”
So while Weissmann and her mother took their new identities, as non-Jewish Belgians, to look for a new room to rent, her father stayed with the piano teacher. An elderly Belgian woman agreed to rent a room to Weissmann and her mother. It happened to be Christmas break so nobody questioned that Weissmann wasn’t in school.
Once Christmas break was over, Weissmann’s mother again went to the Underground to find a new place for Weissmann. They set up with a priest for her to be taken to a convent the next morning.
“I wasn’t allowed to bring anything besides for the clothing I was wearing that day. I couldn’t say goodbye to my mother. I was brought to a bus stop and there a man motioned for me to follow him and I got on the bus,” Weissmann said. That was the last time she saw her mother.
The man, who was the priest disguised as a farmer, brought her to someone’s house. And the next day they took her to the convent. Weissmann stayed at the convent until liberation. “They were so wonderful to me there, absolutely wonderful.”
After the liberation, her father, who had been kept safe at the piano teacher’s home, came for her.
“When I saw my father, I asked, ‘Where’s my mother?’ and he told me she was taken and probably killed. The nuns knew that Weissmann’s mother had been taken but didn’t tell her for fear of how she’d react. “I was very close with my mother,” said Weissmann. “She was everything to me.”
Weissmann would read the lists of names of those who survived the camps hoping to find her mother, but she never did. “I was hysterical with grief,” said Weissmann. Realizing her mother was dead, Weissmann mourned her terribly for a year but then “I realized that what my mother would have wanted was for me to go back to school, so that’s what I did.”
After studying in a school in Europe for awhile, an Uncle from New York found out that Weissmann had survived and asked her to come to America.
“Once I came to America I went to school, to work, and now have children and grandchildren,” said Weissmann. “It’s such a different world.”
IN THE UNDERGROUND
Freide Gorewitz’s earliest memory in Romania is of fire when she was four-and-a-half. “The Jewish homes were burning,” says the West Nyack resident. “My brother was in cheder and my mother was yelling I need to get my children and we were all shepherd somewhere safer, to water,” she says. “And I remember my father saying he didn’t want to raise his children like this, surrounded by fear.”
A few days later her father decided they would move to Antwerp, Belgium. They lived a comfortable life, and she dreamed of becoming a pioneer in Palestine. The misery of Romania was behind them.
The war broke out, just days prior to Gorewitz’s 16th birthday. The Jewish children were not allowed to go to school any more. And so those who could were looking for work. That’s what Gorewitz’s older brother was doing when they took him to Auschwitz. They made the Jews wear yellow stars. “I was a very obnoxious kid and wouldn’t wear it, instead I would put it in my shoe.”
Gorewitz, her older sister, her younger brother, and her mother were all saved by becoming part of the Underground, which was run by the Red Cross.
They dyed Gorewitz’s hair blonde and because she came to Belgium as a young child she spoke French and Flemish without a foreign accent.
“You couldn’t live if you didn’t have a hiding place,” she said. There were many non-Jewish families that helped them. They moved constantly in order to stay one step ahead.
“And you couldn’t live if you didn’t have the food stamps,” she said. One of her jobs as part of the Underground was to find ways to get these food cards once a month so that she and the others could eat.
Another job she had was to take young Jewish children left at shelters to the churches and orphanages where they would be taken care of by the nuns. She managed to save about 18-20 children and after the war was recognized by the king of Belgium.
After the war, Gorewitz and her sister both married Jewish American soldiers and traveled to America with their new husbands. Gorewitz was 19 when she moved to the Bronx with her husband, Rubin.
“We were on a boat with 600 G.I. brides, it was possibly the best comedy display ever,” she laughed.
Gorewitz has spoken to many schools, at many programs, and has been interviewed countless times. “I’ve told my story a million times and it is never easy because you’re dealing with the reality that this is what your life was,” she said.
While her three children were growing up she didn’t talk too much about it, she said. “I wanted to spare them.”
A CONVENT LIFE
Edith Rosen, who lives in New City, had three identities, escaped from an internment camp with her family, walked to Paris from the south of France and lived through two convents to survive the war.
It started with news from family in Poland that worried her father. “He had a premonition. He said if they were killing Jews in Poland, they will kill us all,” says Rosen.
In 1940, they left Paris for the south of France, where they lived in “heaven” tending a farm, according to Rosen, who was then Ida Szajnfeld and nine and a half.
But they were eventually put in a camp. They escaped with the help of a French policeman, and walked three weeks to Paris. An aunt had taken over their apartment and they went into hiding, just outside of Brussels, Belgium.
When the Nazis arrived there, they deported the Jewish children.
A “tall, slim woman with a chignon,” who ran the sight agency, Heart of the Blind, helped Rosen’s parents place her with a blind woman in Brussels. But Rosen was petrified, and took the subway back home. In June of 1943, she was placed in an orphanage run by nuns. She became Gabrielle Sterkx and was told to say her mother was dead. She withdrew into her studies.
“I was a different person, my mind changed from having a happy life, laughing and playing into a student of religion and French literature,” she says. The mother superior terrified her, and she learned her catechism and that Jesus was crucified by the Jews. She remained there a year and a half, when she was reunited with her family, but only for a short while. Then she was sent to another convent, a boarding school.
“It was a good experience, the mother superior was a lovely lady,” she says. The war was in full throttle. When a bomb fell nearby, ‘the whole convent was shattered,” says Rosen. “They told us to hide under our desks. You never want to hear a noise like that.”
Her mother walked seven miles to get her and she stayed with her family.
When the war ended, her life was in flux. She’d missed three years of school and was behind. Her brother, who had hidden with a priest, only missed a year and went to university.
In 1948, she came to America and lived and worked here two years. When she returned to France, her parents wanted her to marry. “I was totally independent, mentally. I wasn’t having anyone tell me who to marry.”
She wanted to go to Israel, but the young country was under constant threat, and her parents didn’t want her returning to a war zone. Instead she returned to the U.S. where she met her husband.
“I did not want to discuss my past. I wanted to forget it. Every once in awhile people would ask me, or say ‘Forget about it, it’s over,’ or ‘You’re lucky, you were not in a camp.’ What did they know?
“I was confused. I had an identity problem. I changed my name three times,” she says. “There is a crisis within ourselves. We hide it.”
A TRIBUTE, TOO
That first conference for hidden children changed the way they thought about their experiences, according to Carla Lessing, one of the organizing volunteers who had been galvanized by a showing of Myriam Abramowicz film, “Comme Si C’etait Hier,” (“As If It Were Yesterday”) about rescuers.
April 2012“We didn’t talk about our experiences,” says Lessing, a Westchester resident and also a former hidden child. “And many of the children, when they came out of hiding the adults said, ‘You were just children, what do you remember?’ They had their own suffering. It was too much to listen to their children’s suffering during the Holocaust.”
It was easy for the former hidden children not to talk. They’d been instructed to be silent: Don’t divulge your real name. Don’t talk about your family or your history. Don’t tell them you are Jewish. Don’t forget to say the shema.
“We were quiet, but here it was 40 years later and the child survivors were all grown up and said, ‘This is ridiculous. We were Holocaust survivors,’” Lessing says.
The conference organizers were overwhelmed by more than 3,000 calls leading up to it. They asked the Anti-Defamation League for help, because its director, Abraham Foxman, was himself a former hidden child.
The conference was a success and groups like the Rockland one flourished in its wake. They have provided support and educational outreach for many over the years.
The most moving moment during the weekend, according to Lessing was when organizers brought 25 rescuers onto the stage. The standing ovation they were given was thundering.
“It was the only time they had been honored by those who were rescued by people like them” she says. “They were simple people, plain people who said, ‘If somebody needs, I will be there to help them.’”
Their reasons for doing what seems audaciously courageous today, were simple. It was the right thing to do.
Kaufman is in touch with the youngest son of the family who saved her life. She sends him money. The parents are listed as righteous gentiles at Yad Vashem in Israel.
One time, after she spoke to a school group, a man asked her if the tables were turned, would she take someone in?
“I said it would be so easy to say, ‘Yes,’ but I have to be true to myself. I don’t know.”