Authors: R. D. Rosen
always with me.
Everyone knows of course the story of Anne Frank, but
Anne Frank did not survive the war, whereas we, luckily,
did. One could say that we were fortunate, and for that
reason we have remained more or less silent to this day.
—ED VAN THIJN, THEN MAYOR OF AMSTERDAM, SPEAKING AT THE
HIDDEN CHILD CONGRESS IN AMSTERDAM, 1992
It would be easier to live without remembering all the time.
Author’s Note on Nonfiction
A Note on Names
Introduction: Why Is This Seder Different from All Other Seders?
My Name May Have Been Miriam
The Hierarchy of Suffering
Am I a Christian or a Jew?
The Next Circle of Hell
Keepers of the Flame
My Name Is Refugee
List of Documentaries and Feature Films
About the Author
Also by R. D. Rosen
About the Publisher
AUTHOR’S NOTE ON NONFICTION
The personal histories at the heart of this book are based entirely on the words of the subjects themselves—whether preserved in correspondence, family documents, other written memorabilia, or recollected in present-day interviews conducted by the author. There is, of course, no such thing as perfect recall; the passage of time alone wreaks havoc on benign memories, let alone on memories so singularly traumatic, so beyond comprehension even now. The people who experienced hiding firsthand and somehow lived to tell the tale—the three women in this book, for example—inevitably stumbled at times in the telling. On such occasions, I’ve turned to the historical record for additional details or clarification. Some actual events have been enhanced with likely details and dialogue based on the recollections of my subjects and in consultation with them. Otherwise, the events, details, and emotions described herein have been neither invented nor embellished.
This book concerns three women who were forced to adopt new names in order to survive the Holocaust. I’ve tried to identify them by their original names whenever possible, but since that was not always possible to do and still maintain the integrity of their stories, I’ve provided below a brief key to the names of the book’s major characters.
SOPHIE was born Selma Schwarzwald in 1937 in Lvov, Poland, the only child of Laura and Daniel Schwarzwald. In 1942, Selma escaped the Lvov ghetto with her mother, bearing papers identifying Selma as Zofia Tymejko and Laura as Bronislawa Tymejko, a fatherless Catholic girl and her widowed mother. In the pages that follow, I’ve continued to call the mother Laura (although she was considered Bronislawa to the world), but refer to her daughter Selma by her new name, Zofia. Laura and Zofia settled first in Kraków and then in Busko-Zdrój, Poland. In 1944, they were joined by Laura’s younger sister, known as Putzi, but who had been living under the name Ksenia Osoba, with the nickname of Nusia.
In 1953, Laura and Zofia, now living in London, still under their false Catholic names, obtained British citizenship. Laura chose Turner as their new family surname, and Zofia Anglicized her name to Sophie Turner until she later married David Zaretsky and became (and remains to this day) Sophie Turner-Zaretzky.
FLORA was born Flora Hillel in San Remo, Italy, in 1936, the only child of parents from Czechoslovakia. After her father’s death from tuberculosis in 1937, she and her mother, Stefanie, moved to Nice, France, in 1939 to escape Mussolini. Shortly before her mother was deported by the Nazis in 1943, Flora was handed over to convent nuns, who gave her the Christian name Marie Hamon, which she retained until reverting to Flora and taking the permanent name of Hogman, the name of the couple who hid her in 1943 in southern France and adopted her after the war. After the deaths of her adopted mother in 1956 and adopted father in 1958, she moved to New York and has remained Flora Hogman to this day.
CARLA was born Carla Heijmans in 1929 and kept her birth name until she married Ed Lessing in 1949. At that point she became, and remains, Carla Lessing.
INTRODUCTION: WHY IS THIS SEDER DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHER SEDERS?
At the end of March 2010, a friend invited me to a Passover seder in Greenwich Village. It was one of those seders common among Manhattan types who over the years have stripped their Judaism down to a proud cultural core. We were Jews who had drifted far from regular Shabbat dinners, synagogues, and bar and bat mitzvahs, but we clung to the Passover seder as the one unsinkable ritual of our Jewish upbringings. It was a time to relive the raucous seders of our childhoods and celebrate the emancipation of the Jews from Egyptian bondage, as well as the freedoms that we all took for granted in the most Jewish big city in the freest country in the world.
The trees were just budding outside the apartment’s casement windows on West Twelfth Street when the ten of us sat down at the long table. I didn’t know all of the people, but we were a familiar assortment of savvy, secular, casually dressed types: a cable TV executive, a novelist, an editor, a lawyer, a real estate agent, a doctor. We ranged in age from our thirties to our seventies.
There was just one person at the table who didn’t quite fit: an affable woman in her seventies with a cherubic face and close-cropped blond hair who had come alone and was seated directly across from me with a colorful scarf loosely knotted around her neck. She had the appealing air of someone perpetually on the verge of laughing. Among the darker-haired guests, she didn’t look Jewish, but she seemed well enough acquainted with the feast’s rituals and laughed with everyone else when we complained of the interminable wait for each installment of the meal, stole pieces of matzoh and sips of wine, and interrupted our reading of the Haggadah to complain of its historical inaccuracies and improbabilities.
But her fair coloring and faint European accent, which was hard to place, made her stand out from the rest of us irreverent Reform Jews at the table. At the first real break in the proceedings—somewhere between the gefilte fish and the chicken soup—I asked her about herself. For all I knew, this was her first seder and I didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable. She said her name was Sophie Turner-Zaretsky, that she was a retired radiation oncologist and was distantly related to the host.
“I can’t place your accent,” I said. “Where did you grow up?”
“Oh, I’m half Polish,” I said, glad to have something in common. “On my father’s side. Warsaw. So you were in Poland during the war?”
“Yes,” she said.
“What were you doing?”
“Hiding,” she replied softly and with no more emotion than if she had been telling me what movie she had seen the night before.
With that one word, of course, all my assumptions about her collapsed. She was a Jew after all, and one whose childhood put the rest of ours in stark perspective. I quickly calculated that, if she were in her seventies, then she had been a little girl during the war.
I felt that uncomfortable twinge of privilege that I often experience when confronted with those less fortunate—let alone someone who really happened to wake up on the wrong side of history’s bed. I didn’t know quite what to say. Had her parents been murdered? How many European Jewish children had survived the Holocaust? I had no idea. All I knew was that Sophie had grown up in one of the very worst places in history to be a Jew.
On the other hand, I had grown up in one of the safest places ever, a lakefront suburb of Chicago that had been hospitable to Jews since at least the 1920s. My four grandparents had found their way from Shkud, Lithuania; Chvanik, Belorussia; and Warsaw to Chicago in the early part of the twentieth century—a quarter century before the Nazis invaded Poland. My parents, born here, grew up in the urbanized shtetls of Chicago’s west side, enveloped by family, before joining the new diaspora to the suburbs in the 1950s. Highland Park, twenty-odd miles north of the city, had actually become famous for its overprotected, entitled children. In 1960, when I was in sixth grade, the town was singled out in a Saturday Evening Post feature story—later a book—called “Suburbia’s Coddled Kids.” The article portrayed a few of my wealthier sixth-grade classmates as absurdly sheltered, including a boy who had allegedly tried to pay for his thirty-five-cent school lunch with a fifty-dollar bill.
Ever since I could remember, I had been troubled by the seder service’s most punitive passage, when the Haggadah takes up the issue of the “wicked child,” one of the four types of children to whom the story of the Exodus must be explained. The wicked child asks “What does it all mean to you?”—excluding himself from the community. To him, it is said that God brought the Jews out of slavery, but not him; the wicked child would not be redeemed. While all four children—the wise, the simple, the one who’s unable to ask about it at all, and the wicked—may represent aspects of a single self, the wicked child spoke to my anxiety about my good fortune and a fear that, raised in my suburban bubble, I was insufficiently connected to the history of my own people.
Sixteen or more Polish relatives on my father’s side had perished in the Holocaust, but these family ghosts—at once too remote and too numerous—were rarely even mentioned at home. Beyond that, as far as I knew, the family’s only personal connection to the Holocaust, and it was a distant one, was a letter my grandmother had sent to my father from Warsaw when she returned there to visit her mother after twenty-two years in America. He probably first showed it to us when I was in my twenties. “I stayed in Berlin with my aunt four days,” my grandmother wrote. “I saw Hitler on a parade last Sunday. Things are not so hot in Berlin, but I’m glad I saw everything.” Her letter is dated July 18, 1934, barely two weeks after Hitler’s “Night of the Long Knives,” the ruthless, murderous purge of political opponents, left-wingers, anti-Nazis, and other undesirables that cemented his power.
Growing up, I didn’t know any survivors. The Nazis’ Final Solution was like a dark cloud that had passed overhead long ago—not a handful of years before—but could still be seen in the distance, if you cared to glance in that direction. America couldn’t seem to put enough distance between it and the Holocaust. Among children, the Holocaust was mostly the subject of nervous jokes (“Eat—you look like someone from Auschwitz”) and ditties like the one sung to the tune of the “Colonel Bogey March,” variations of which made the rounds of countless American playgrounds in the 1950s:
Hitler had only one big ball
Göring had two but they were small
Himmler had something sim’lar
And poor Goebbels had no balls at all
The attempt to emasculate these monsters after the fact was a bizarre expression of our impotence in the face of the Nazis’ atrocities. Recasting Nazism as comedy in the 1960s—from Hogan’s Heroes to The Producers—helped to hide our own government’s inaction during the war and its sinister expediency after it. Without informing the public, the United States’ OSS recruited the Nazis’ Eastern Front intelligence chief, Reinhard Gehlen, and thousands of Nazi spies—some of them war criminals—for their intelligence—often unreliable and fabricated—on the Soviet Union. Nazi scientists Wernher von Braun and Arthur Rudolph were repackaged for the burgeoning U.S. space program as harmlessly apolitical scientists, although during the war their V-2 rocket had been built at Nordhausen at a cost of more than 10,000 dead slave laborers.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower released film of concentration camp atrocities made right after liberation. The footage, shot by Hollywood directors recruited for the purpose, had a brief run as newsreels in American movie theaters in 1945, but for the next decade most Americans were shielded from the worst images of the Final Solution. Orson Welles’s 1946 poorly reviewed movie The Stranger featured some very brief atrocity footage, and Alain Resnais’s remarkable 1955 art house documentary Night and Fog wasn’t released in America until the 1960s. The Holocaust wouldn’t become real for many of us children until 1961, when we at last saw the footage of bulldozed Jewish corpses in Judgment at Nuremberg, the movie that introduced much of the world to the incontrovertible proof of what the Nazis had done. (The 1959 live TV version of Judgment on Playhouse 90 didn’t include documentary footage and had been stripped of any references to gas chambers in deference to its sponsor, the American Gas Association.)
To my embarrassment, I had never talked to a survivor, and now here was Sophie sitting three feet from me, an emissary from a disaster I hadn’t emotionally confronted in my life. Here was my chance, but questions don’t come easily in the presence of another’s tragedy. In any case, I’ll never know what I would have asked Sophie next because her cousin Alice Herb, our host, suddenly called to her.