Sara Byer

"To my own family, preserve your Jewish identity.  To all others, my family included, know that evil begins with standing still at the face of injustice while one still has the power to do something.  I speak to a lot of kids.  I tell them that things change.  No matter how desperate a situation may look, it can change.  Don’t give up."

Name at birth
Sara Orlik
Date of birth
Where were you born?
Where did you grow up?
Poland, Russia, Germany, France, US, Canada
Name of father, occupation
Yakov Simcha Orlik, Rabbi, Talmudic scholar
Maiden name of mother, occupation
Chana Hinda Grynszpan, Homemaker
Immediate family (names, birth order)
Seven total, my two sisters Chaya and Raizel, my parents, my maternal grandparents and me
How many in entire extended family?
Who survived the Holocaust?
My parents, my paternal grandfather, one uncle, one aunt, my two sisters, myself and some cousins
I grew up in a shtetl (a small Jewish town).  My family had a soda pop factory, a beer distribution, a store, a restaurant, and lots of property.  My grandmother was left as an orphan as and became a sharp business lady, her name was Esther Ruchel Zabludowicz.  

My maternal grandfather was the head of the Jewish community council.  He had a famous last name, Grynszpan.  It was the name of a man who had killed a German official in Paris. When the Germans came to our town, they came in to look for him perhaps because of his name, perhaps because he was prominent Jewish community leader.  He went into hiding immediately after the Germans occupied us.  

The Germans gathered all Jews into the town square, first degrading and about three months later, announcing that as of then, Jews have lost all rights. Meaning we had no legal protection from anyone robbing or killing us. My family decided we have to leave, we would be among the first to be targeted.  My grandmother hired a horse and buggy to take us to the Soviet occupied part of Poland.  Following horrifying events on the way, we eventually ended up near Bialystok, in Zwierzyniec, now in White Russia.  

Initially, greeted with open arms, we were there for about eight months.  I became very sick with typhus and typhoid fever from the lice, mice, bed bugs in the one room given to us. One middle of the night, the Soviet soldiers put us into cattle cars and ended up in the Arctic Circle.  This was sometime in 1940. I was about 7 years old. We ended up prisoners in a political prisoners’ camp in the thick woods of the Tayga where a clearing cut out by former political prisoners in forced labor camps contained several barracks. Here, we were forced to chop down trees, clear roads of snow.   It would get down to 60 degrees below zero in the winter, which was most of the year.  In the very brief summer, we were forced to gather wild berries growing in the swamps there.  The Soviets used these, we were told, for medicinal purposes.  We had a quota of how much we had to gather.  The woods were covered with bees, flies, and mosquitoes. Our faces and arms were swollen, while starvation was rampant.  We were given a tiny piece of bread per day and watered down would-be soup.

Our guards were either current or former prisoners themselves. We were told that we would be there for the rest of our lives.  Some of the young men in our group protested. Soldiers came and took them away, they were never heard from again.  After that, nobody protested.

There were no schools; we were there for two years.  At some point, the Polish government in exile succeeded in forging an agreement with the Soviets that would release all Polish citizens from these camps.  

We were released from the camp but could only stay within the Soviet Union.  We decided to go to a warm climate. We chose Georgia. We did not end up there. Again in cattle cars, our transport was caught in the middle of a war zone as Germany attacked the Soviet Union.  We ultimately ended up in Uzbekistan.  We had been in these cattle cars for seemingly two months.  We were then dumped into the street. Starvation continued.

My grandmother died there and is buried in Uzbekistan.  We went on to Osh, Kirgizstan and were there for about 5-6 years. There was continued forced labor. My parents dug ditches, among other assignments. We kids were able to go to school. Starvation continued rampant.  

Perhaps about a year after the war ended, the Polish government in exile succeeded in getting the Soviets to allow the Polish citizens to return to Poland.  We again ended up in cattle cars on the way home.  We did not get there. While passing the Ukraine our transport was greeted with stones and a familiar refrain “Dirty Jews, go to Palestine!” as we left the Ukraine and entered Poland we were greeted similarly.     We were told not to go back to our hometown, that the Poles will kill us.  

We ended up in Szczecin, Upper Silesia.  There, Jewish leaders organized kibbutzim (communal settlement), particularly for the children.  We studied Hebrew and in other ways prepared ourselves to smuggle into Palestine. My kibbutz left for Germany as part of that plan.  My sister Chaya and I ended up in a DP camp, Hochland, and from there I was transferred to a camp with a school, Foerenwald.  We were going to smuggle into Palestine from there after our parents were to join us. The borders were soon closed and our parents and middle sister were unable to join us and for two years I was thus separated from them. While at this camp, I went to an all-Hebrew school, I discovered talent not previously known. I became a star in the community theatre, where I sang, I danced, did drama. I was extremely lonely for my parents, all-the-while.

At one point I learned that my parents were to be in Paris, en route to America.  I was able to join them by joining a group of children who were being smuggled into France their way to smuggle into Palestine.  The ship that picked them up was called The Exodus.  As you know they were caught and turned back.  I ended up in Paris with my parents.  Once with them I would not leave them.

On Feb. 6, 1948 we were greeted by the Statue of Liberty.  

 I went to Brooklyn College, Wayne State University in Detroit and Union Institute, where I received a PhD in psychology.  The man I married was from Windsor, Ontario across the river from Detroit.

Name of Concentration / Labor Camp(s)
Where were you in the Former Soviet Union?
Archangelsk in Arctic Circle; Osh, Kirgizstan; Tashkent, Uzbekistan
What DP Camp were you after the war?
Yes, Hochland and Foerenwald DP camps in Germany
How is it that you came to Michigan?
My husband lived in Windsor, Ontario
Occupation after the war
Psychologist in private practice, specializing in trauma
Jerry Byer, Retired physics professor
Louis Lee Byer, actuary; Elise Byer, psychotherapist
Six: Devorah, Yehoshua Mordechai, Shlomo, Nachman, Shayna, and Yiroel Mayer
What do you think helped you to survive?
My family: People who found themselves without families or who had families that were not close, fell like flies. At first it was my grandmother, then my mother, who took over with such inner strength tending in whatever way possible to our physical survival. My father preserved my sanity. While never knowing where I would open my eyes the following morning, since we were so often transferred from one place to the next, I knew one thing, that when I open my eyes I would see my father wrapped in his prayer shawl saying his very long morning prayers. This consistency was the one constant I could rely on.
What message would you like to leave for future generations?
To my own family, preserve your Jewish identity.  To all others, my family included, know that evil begins with standing still at the face of injustice while one still has the power to do something. 

I speak to a lot of kids.  I tell them that things change.  No matter how desperate a situation may look, it can change.  Don’t give up.

Charles Silow
Interview date:

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