In 1930 when I was only a few months old, my father was drafted into the Polish army; my mother did not want him to go so she sold everything and sent him to Cuba because it was nearest to America. The quota for Polish people to come to the United States was terrible. In Cuba my father got in with a partner and started making silk material. My mother stayed behind in Poland.
In 1939, Poland was overcome by the Nazis in two weeks. After Poland was occupied, people hid their jewelry and other valuables, they didn’t trust the banks. We stayed with my grandparents who had a general store. When the Germans came and occupied the town, they took all of the religious Jews and took them to a central square. They cut off one side of the beards of the religious Jewish men and told them to kneel. They took movies of how they humiliated us. My mother said to a German, why are you doing this? He said we want to show in Berlin movies of the filthy Jews.
One German got up on the platform and he said if you want to stay in your homes you can but we are not responsible for you. Any Polish person can come in and rob you, kill you, do anything and they won’t get punished. So my suggestion to you, he said, is just leave, go to the Russian occupied part of Poland, the border is still open.
My mother had blond hair and blue eyes and the Germans didn’t think she was Jewish. Jews were not allowed to get together with other Jewish people; we were not allowed to congregate with each other, on the streets or in people’s houses.
The first person that they killed was my uncle Gerer Rabbi, my father’s sister’s husband. They told him to stop but he didn’t because he was deaf. He was coming home from the synagogue carrying a prayer book, his prayer shawl, and wearing a yarmulke. That was the first person I ever saw killed. I was 9 years old at the time.
They called us vermin and filth. They told us to leave in two hours; if you stayed you had no rights. We dressed in layers and walked to the Russian border. People wore their jewelry. The Germans hit and killed my grandparents with the butt of a gun for their jewelry.
We walked several days to Lomza which was on the Russian occupied side of Poland. As soon as we settled in Lomza, my mother’s older sister, Fayga Greenspan, passed away at the age of 40 of tuberculosis. We were in Lomza for a few months. When the Russians occupied Poland, they closed private enterprises, stores; they were Communists and did not allow people to own their own businesses. Everybody had to work for the government. In order for us to buy a piece of bread or a bagel, you had to stay in line for many hours or you had to go to the Black market and exchange things, a pair of pants, a shirt for food.
One day my uncle went to the Black Market to get us some food, he took a pair of pants of his in order to get bread. When he came home, he told us that he was sure that a Russian soldier was watching him. He was afraid that they would come in the middle of the night and put him in jail, that’s what they used to do. So we packed up all of our belongings, the whole family, my mother, my mother’s sister Tima, her brother Rachmiel Barenholtz, my mother and I and my brother, and my mother’s oldest sister’s family, Fayga’s husband and three sons and a daughter, and we all went to Bialystok.
We moved in with my mother’s father’ brother; her uncle, Gershon Barenholtz. My brother and I attended a Russian school in Bialystok. The Gemina, the leaders of the Jewish community in Bialystok provided housing in synagogues, in warehouses, little summer cottages behind the city, in big public buildings and in schools, any place where they had space, they let them in. Everyday after school, I used run through the park and visit my relatives who lived in the little cottages. I used to go visit my cousins behind the city in the small bungalows.
Conditions were horrible in Bialystok just like in Lomza. We couldn’t get water; we had stay in long lines for bread and everything. This was in 1939. The refugees got angry and a lot of them said in the First World War, the Germans were better to the Jews than the Russians. They started signing up to go back home to the German occupied Poland. So all of those people who signed up to go back, in the middle of the night, the Russians came and took them all away on cattle trains to Siberia.
How did I find out? One time after school, I went to see my cousins in the small bungalows but it was like a ghost town. Everything was boarded up, no one was around. I ran back to tell my mother and told her everyone’s gone, your brother, your sister, your brother-in-law and all of his four kids. My mother started crying she didn’t know what happened.
An hour later, a Polish boy on a bicycle arrived with a note from my uncle, Moishe Greenspan, saying, please pack up what you can and meet us at the train station. Tear up your passports and meet us at the train station. People looked us like we were crazy, but we wanted to be with our family. These were not regular trains but cattle trains similar to the ones the Germans used to transport Jews to the crematorium.
As soon as the trains started to move, my 13 ½ year old brother Moshe wanted to jump off. He said I’m learning to become an electrician, when you get settled I will come to you. My mother was holding onto him but it didn’t help. He jumped off. We never saw him again. After the war, I heard from a cousin that he was shot by a German.
We were now traveling to Siberia. There was no toilet on the train; they had to make a hole in the floor so people could go to the bathroom. They nailed a sheet from the ceiling of the train so that there would some privacy.
We left Bialystok in 1940; we traveled for two months to our destination, Archangelsk, Russia all the way up north, near Finland. We heard artillery between the Finnish and Russian soldiers.
We arrived and it was day time. We were waiting to go to sleep and they told us that there is no night for three months. I remember we covered the windows with sheets to make it dark. Our homes were log cabins. The cabins were far away from each other.
They had one restaurant there that we were given Russian cabbage borscht that we saw a little bit of meat swimming around. Everyone ate from one big wooden bowl. It was very thin and watery. Everyone got a slice of bread and then we went to sleep. In the morning we found out it was a prison camp filled with Russians that were for the Czar. There were still a lot of Russians there who had been loyal to the Czar. It was an open prison; most of the people’s jobs were to cut trees for lumber. The people had to produce a certain amount, if they exceeded their quota they called Stachanavtzi, received extra food.
We were very hungry, but in the summer, we lived off the land, there were delicious wild strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. You could sit at a raspberry bush for 3 or 4 hours and not pick all of the raspberries, that’s how big the bushes were. Once in a while they gave us fish from the North Sea that was so salty that you had to soak for several days because it was so salty. Then came the winter. The snow was so very high. We had to go to school on cross country skis, you couldn’t’ walk on the snow, you would be buried and no one would find you. The brown bears would look in the windows; one man from our people was choked from a bear hug. In the winter, we were afraid of the bears. The temperature went down to 70 degrees below zero Celsius. 65 degrees below zero, we still went to school. We had one school up to four grades. They did have a wonderful library. I read everything, Dickens, Tolstoy. I even found some books that were forbidden such as from Mopasan. I became a very fast reader. I read by a kerosene lamp. We were taken there as political prisoners, because we had signed up to go back to our homes which were in German occupied Poland.
After two years, General Sakorski made a pact with Stalin to get his citizens settled in small towns in Russia instead of being in Siberia. So finally they let us go. The majority of the Jewish refugees went to Asia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. They thought they would be closer to get to Israel.
I wanted to go to the town where Lenin was born, Ulianowsk, on the river Volga. But the Russians forbid us to settle in the larger cities, so we settled in a nearby little town called Viszkaima. I started to go to school. They put all of the Polish Jewish refugees in prison and forced them to take Russian passports. I was 11 years old, I was little. They took away all of the grownups to jail and forced to become Russian citizens. I was the only Jewish girl in my class. They never saw a Jew in that little town, they thought Jews had horns.
They used to say how come your family is against the Russian regime. I said I don’t know, I’m studies Stalin’s constitution, they were forcing me to become a Russian consomol, a pioneer of the Russian communist party. My mother said I’ll break your bones is you join them because then we’ll never get out of Russia because we’ll become Russian citizens. I was a very scholarly student so they gave me special awards. I went to visit the jail and told my mother, my family to please take the Russian passports and get out of jail. So finally they did and they let them out and life went back to normal.
In 1946, after the war was over, they let us go back to Poland. My whole school closed to say goodbye to me. They were very good natured the Russian people, even though they were very poor, they would share their last piece of bread with you. We didn’t like their government but that was a different story altogether.
We went back to Poland to a city called Klacko, which was a border town to Czechoslovakia. We came back to Poland with three sisters from our camp who were from Kielce, Lola, Chayka, and Riva. They went back to Kielce to recover that their father hid in their house. They were murdered by Polish people from Kielce for the jewelry.
After we heard that story, we were afraid to go back to our home town. We signed up with a kibbutz (a collective agricultural settlement in modern Israel) in order to cross the Czechoslovakian border to go the American zone. We crawled through the mountains to get to Czechoslovakia. We stayed in Bratislava for three months until the family gathered together. We all went to Prague and then to Germany, to Ulm on the Donau River.
In Ulm, there were three DP camps. I finished my last year of high school in Sedan Kaserne DP camp. I received my high school diploma and then I went to nursing school in Frankfurt am Main. We were struggling; life in the DP camps was hard. It was a tough life. People didn’t have clothes, there were shortages of Penicillin. A lot of the young boys contracted gonorrhea and syphilis. I worked as a nurse in the DP camp, giving shots according to what the doctors ordered. One day I came home from work, the Jewish people stopped me, they took me to my house. A lot of them married German girls and took them to Israel.
My mother remarried, her sister’s husband, the one whose wife died in 1939 of tuberculosis.
In 1949, our family came to the U.S. My uncle’s daughter got married in Ulm to a man that had a big family in Detroit. We first went to New York and then to Detroit where my first cousin lived.
In 1949, I was offered $2 a day to work in a hospital. My first job was at Elston’s bakery. I couldn’t afford the bus fare which then was only ten cents. I went to Central High School to learn English and then I went to night school. I wanted to speak the language. My mother cooked for a man, we stayed with him rent-free. I slept on the couch in the living room. He was such a nice old wonderful Orthodox gentleman, Mr. Silverstein; he used to prepare kids for their bar mitzvahs. For my birthday, he always put in $3 in an envelope and used to say happy birthday to me.
In 1951, I met and married Sasha Dell, the love of my life was a survivor of Auschwitz. He was the sole survivor of his entire family. We had four children together, two girls and two boys.
He was in the grocery business in Windsor. In 1967, we moved to Detroit when the riots were on. For a whole year he could not find work. Then he went into the wholesale meat business with a partner who was Arabic from Ramallah, George Nasser. In 1974, we went to Israel and we visited his family in Ramallah. They treated us with gold gloves. That’s the first time I ever tasted a mango.
My husband died June 28, 1979 of leukemia the age of 54. He loved life. As soon as he made a few dollars he said life is too short, let’s go on vacation. We traveled to Barbados, Aruba, Florida, Hawaii, Los Angeles, Mexico, wherever he could.
Four years later, I remarried a survivor of Mauthausen concentration camp, Joseph Silver. He was the sole survivor of his whole family.
My father, who left for Cuba, remarried after my mother divorced him to be able to marry her brother in law. She blamed my father for the death of my brother because he couldn’t get us out of Poland before World War II broke out. I have a half-brother and sister in Cuba that I have never met. Someday I want to go there and meet them.