Today is your birthday and although we have never met, I am thinking of you. You may not know this but every time I dust the dining room table and chairs, which you had protected with plastic for so many years and that now stands in our dining room, I say hello to you.
Mindy has shared with me her memories of you. She recalls you cooking a lot and making kreplach with you in the kitchen in Montreal. She also fondly remembers sitting on your lap as a small child. You would puff up your cheeks with air so she could squeeze them, and would laugh at the noise that resulted. Mindy told me how you would point to her nose and say, “nezeleh” (little nose in Yiddish) and then to her head and say, “kepeleh” (little head), then eye and say, “oygeleh”. She told me how you called her “Mindele” and your “shayne meydle” (beautiful girl) and hugged her lots.
I have also spent numerous hours researching your family online, trying to trace as much about your life as I could. This is a story that you kept to yourself, as it must have been too painful to share.
In 2016 we traveled to Kozienice, the small Polish town outside of Warsaw where you were born Rozia Borenstein on December 5, 1926. We found records showing you and your siblings went to grammar school here.
We took in the town as we walked where you lived for the first decade of your life with your mother, Rywka Kleinman, and father, Mojsze Borenstein, grandparents Baruch and Rozia, and five siblings: Tova, Icek (you called him Jakob), Perilia, Israel and Dora. Your grandfather was a shoemaker, your father was a shoemaker and your brother Jakob was learning the trade. I wonder how far back the shoemaking business had been in your family.
We learned that the Jewish Cemetery in Kozienice only had one gravestone left. All the others, including those of your family, had been ripped out and used to make roads. This angered me in particular, Baba. Recently, I visited the small town of Weymouth, Massachusetts, where my grandmother was from, and while walking through the cemetery I came across so many names that I recognized as my family members. I also discovered new names that I was able to research later. I wanted this same experience for Mindy, who longed for a connection to her past. Mindy grew up not knowing much about her family’s extended history and this cemetery would have given her a link she so desired. The blatant disregard for the life each gravestone represented is an injustice that can never be repaired.
As a teen you were sent to Czerniakow, outside Warsaw, where you lived and worked as an agricultural worker for several years until the very end of 1942. It was just after your 17th birthday when the estate was surrounded by SS officers one day, and the German owner of the company was forced to send all 60 Jews in his workforce to the Warsaw Ghetto.
You arrived shortly before the ghetto uprising that lasted from January to May 16, 1943 and, in fact, many of the newly-arrived agricultural workers you had worked with helped secure weapons and hatch a plan to fight back against the SS. Your brother Jakob writes that he was a proud part of the resistance. He said you often had to hide during this period. I can only imagine how scared you must have been, Baba, hiding and hearing the sounds of gunshots, heavy boots and screaming.
We visited the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto. This is where you would have learned that so many of your family members had died due to hunger and lack of medicine before your arrival. Your beloved father had passed away at 53 years old in April 1942. The night of your father’s funeral, one of his brothers (your uncle), who was living in Warsaw, died in his sleep. Jakob also got word that all three remaining brothers died on the same day. Your brother Jakob wrote in his memoirs that he went to great lengths (paying 2 złoty per person who attended the funeral) to get your father properly buried in the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery.
We walked through the Jewish Cemetery looking for your father’s headstone…but in vain. Through the help of our friend Kate, who speaks Polish, we were able to speak with an official there who directed us to the area where people had been buried in 1942. We placed stones in several locations there for your father, your uncles and for so many others who met their deaths way before their time.
You would have also learned about the plight of your brother’s wife, Adele, and their one-year old son, Israel Abraham Borenstein. On September 12, 1942, only a few months before you arrived to the Warsaw ghetto, your brother Jakob had come home to 3 Parisowski Street only to find his wife and young son gone. He was so devastated by this that he ran to Umschlagplatz (transfer station) to be with them, even though it would mean his death at Treblinka. But when he arrived, the train had already gone… gone, too, were his wife and child to meet their brutal end in a gas chamber, along with so many other Jews.
We visited Umschlagplatz, where you were also forced to board a train one day at the end of April, 1943. I can only imagine the fear you and everyone in those packed cars must have felt, thinking you were going to Treblinka like so many before. And would you now suffer the same fate?
While in Warsaw we participated in the March of Remembrance that started at Umschlagplatz and ended at the hospital that was inside the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation. This march was to commemorate the anniversary of when the Nazis began mass deportations of the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka Death Camp.
Each person wore a white band bearing a Jewish first name. These were randomly assigned to us. I got the name Szemaja and Mindy got Pesach and we carried them with us through the streets of Warsaw. I was pleased to see so many people participate, Baba.
At the end of the march, we all tied the white bands on the fence of the hospital.
We paid our respects at Treblinka. We learned what happened on the other end of the grueling train ride so many were forced to take from Umschlagplatz. As you can imagine, Baba, this was an emotionally painful visit and I will spare you the details of what we learned at the museum about the atrocities that occurred at this death camp. Suffice it to say, I’m glad you never ended up here.
We walked through a memorial, which consisted of large fields with huge rocks bearing the names of numerous cities and towns and villages from all over Europe. Each stone represented all the Jews from that area who were rounded up and taken to Treblinka to be killed en masse. The sheer sight of all those stones and the staggering number of people they represented was overwhelming. Still, we were determined to find Kozienice.
We walked and walked reading names of places, some that were familiar and so many that we had never heard of. But, we eventually found your home town, Baba. Your family was not forgotten. We placed a stone for your family members.
We visited Majdanek, just outside Lublin, where the train actually took you that day when you left the Warsaw Ghetto. You were forced to walk the final two miles, no doubt hungry and scared. We saw the building where you were poked and prodded, had your head shaved and given a uniform, whether it fit properly or not. We saw the wooden bunks where you and so many others slept. We saw the gas chambers where so many were put to death, many even upon arrival.
We learned about the systematic beatings that you endured and that you were forced to work in the laundry. I wonder what memories from this place plagued you for the rest of your life.
We revisited the story of how on May 5, 1943 you were standing in Zone 5 at Majdanek and saw your brother Jakob in the next field having just arrived. You called out to him, “Jakob” and when his eyes met yours you shared a comforting moment of joy. Your brother was still alive!
Jakob (Great Uncle Jack as he was known to Mindy) wrote about the immense joy he felt in this moment and how he stealthily threw some of the 2500 złoty he had over the fence to you. This moment, the one where he discovered that you had not perished in Treblinka like he had feared, would propel him to survive even through the darkest of times he was still yet to face. I wonder if this moment had a similar affect on you, Baba.
Upon leaving Majdanek, I felt a huge sense of relief that you were able to leave this place, as so many never did. I asked Mindy to stop the car so I could get out and place a stone on the large sign saying Majdanek. I did this for you, Baba, and for all those who suffered there.
We learned that in August 1943, without being able to say goodbye to your big brother, you were put on a train and sent to Skarysko-Kamienna, Poland. Little did you know at the time but only a few months later in November of that year, all the remaining prisoners at Majdanek were killed.
At the new concentration camp you were forced to work for the HASAG company making ammunition. During the year you worked there you were exposed to strong chemicals and metals which may have played a big role at the end of your life.
While at this concentration camp one day you were given a pair of boots. To your surprise when you tried them on, you noticed that there was something hard in them. It turned out to be money – quite a bit of money in fact. It was a small fortune that the previous owner had hidden inside them. This money would end up helping you get a good start later on.
In August 1944, Skarysko-Kamienna was dissolved and you were sent to a sub-camp of Buchenwald in Germany. You arrived at Leipzig-Schoenefeld on August 4, 1944 and were assigned the number 586. You were forced to continue your work making ammunition for the HASAG company.
In mid-April 1945 soldiers of the Allied Forces were closing in so the guards ordered you and the other forced laborers to walk. This would be your final excruciating journey to freedom. So many people had survived this long only to die along this brutal death march and others like it. You were forced to march due east towards Wurzen and on to Riesa and then north along the Elbe River towards Strehla. After walking for so long (40 miles as the crow flies) tired and hungry, you were finally liberated just outside Strehla by the Red Army on April 30, 1945. I wonder what emotions you were feeling at this moment, Baba.
After the Holocaust ended, you worked hard to begin a new life. Your post-Shoah life began in a displaced persons’ camp in Feldafing, Germany.
This is where you fell in love with Meir Moses Wolman, the man who became Mindy’s Zaide (grandfather). He had also survived the Shoah. Mindy was named after him (Mira Tova is her Hebrew name) because she has his bright blue eyes. Sadly, she never got to meet her Zaide as he passed shortly before she was born.
This is where you convalesced and tried to focus on the future. You were a newly-wed here. You bore your first child here, Mindy’s Aunt Patricia (Pessa).
This is also where you first discovered that after the war your brother Jakob was indeed still alive and the only other member of your family to survive. He had traveled all throughout Germany for several years looking for you and finally found you here, living in this beautiful lakeside town in Villa Förster.
You would have learned of the harrowing journey your brother had taken after leaving Majdanek. You would have seen the number 127958 tattooed on his arm that he was given in Auschwitz III, where he was forced to work in Monowitz at the Buna factory for IG Farben.
One day, Jakob hadn’t made the selection in Auschwitz and so was sent to the sanitation room, where he stood among approximately 200 others. He watched the two guards very carefully. This long room had two entrances, one in the front and one in the back. While others around him prayed, cried and held each other, your brother kept his eye on the guard in the back who was rolling a cigarette. The guard at the back door then walked through the gas chamber to the guard in the front to ask for a light. Jakob took this opportunity and ran out the back fully expecting a bullet to hit him from behind. After trying the the barracks and finding them locked because the prisoners were working, he kept running until he reached the toilets. He hid there the entire day until his work crew came home. He simply slipped in with them and no one noticed.
You would have learned that he was hospitalized at Auschwitz twice and that he was sent to Gleiwitz II in October 1944 where he worked in a shoe factory until January 1945. As the American Army approached, he was sent on a transport to Ravensbrück near Berlin, where they stayed for two days before being forced back on the train and sent to Flossenburg, Germany. Many people died during these transports for lack of food and water and pure exhaustion. Jakob was ultimately sent on a death march too and on April 23rd, 1945 was liberated by the American 3rd Army. After leaving Feldafing, he left Europe and moved to New York City where he changed his name to Jack. His new life began working in a shoe factory.
As I watched Mindy walk around the small town of Feldafing, I wondered if she was passing some of the same big beautiful trees that you had passed decades before. I wondered if they recognized her, knowing that her journey to this town on Starnberg Lake was somehow different from others who visit.
You moved to Haifa, Israel in 1948, where people called you Szoszana (Rose in Hebrew). You bore Mindy’s Mom Rena (Riwka) in October 1949 and Meir worked at the port as a crane operator.
You will be happy to know that Mindy and I visited Haifa during our travels to Israel in August 2013.
In 1953, you moved back to Germany for a few months in order to ready yourself to move to Brazil. The kids were 7 and 4 at the time. You yourself were only 28 and I wonder what that long journey on the ship was like for you. It would have been quite arduous crossing the Atlantic Ocean and I wonder what your thoughts were when you first arrived in Sao Paulo.
You stayed with a cousin named Mosche in Sao Paulo before moving to Rio de Janeiro a year later, while waiting until your brother-in-law to become qualified to sponsor you to emigrate to Canada.
When that day finally came, in 1957, you flew from Sao Paulo to New York on Varig Airlines. This would have been your very first plane ride. Mindy’s Mom, at the age of eight, remembers this journey well and says that both engines caught fire so you all had to land in the Dominican Republic and stay overnight while the plane was being fixed. I think it must have been hard to get back on that plane the next day.
After a visit with Uncle Jack in New York City, you took a train to Montreal, where you stayed for the rest of your life. It must have been nice to finally have a place of permanence after moving around for so long, Baba.
When you arrived in Montreal you got a job cooking at a restaurant inside the fruit market. Later you bought your own restaurant called Duke’s, where you served good home-cooked meals and it was apparently quite popular. Meir worked as a plumber for Iberville Plumbing until he had a cardiac event after which he changed professions and became a taxi driver.
I am told you were a rather reserved person who worried all the time. If Meir was late you would wait by the window until he came home. Mindy would also do this as a child when her Mom was running late from work.
Although you grew up in a very religious home, you, like so many others, (understandably) lost your faith in God during the Holocaust. You did not attend religious services and only celebrated Jewish holidays with the traditional food but leaving out the religious roots and prayers.
When your youngest daughter, Rena, was nine she complained of severe pain in her left shoulder. This pain turned out to be an aggressive form of cancer, so much so in fact that she had to have her arm and shoulder amputated shortly before her 10th birthday. I can only imagine the amount of worry you must have had during this time, Baba. You had already lost so many members of your family.
Your brother Jack prayed for Rena to come out of the operation okay and even asked a rabbi to pray for her. Thankfully Rena’s operation was a success in ridding her body of cancer. Seeing that your daughter did indeed survive, renewed your faith in God a bit. “Maybe there is a God up there after all”, Rena remembers you saying.
In the late 60’s you sold your restaurant and began working as a cook at Extended Care (an elder care facility) in the Côte Saint-Luc suburb of Montreal.
You lost Meir in his 50s on November 17, 1975 from pancreatic cancer.
In 1977, you married a man named Michael (Mische) Mitelman and spent 18 happy years together until his death in 1995.
Mische seemed like a fun man to be around. He taught you to play rummy and you both played in groups often. Being a religious man, he brought back some religion to the holidays. You also bought a house together, something you had always wanted.
Mindy and I met in Germany and we traveled around Germany and other parts of Europe together by train. We had a deck of cards with us and so we played rummy a lot. Mindy doesn’t put her foot down very often as she is a very go-with-the-flow kind of person but the first time she did was on a German train, when she insisted that we play rummy using “Baba rules”. She explained to me what these were and how they differed from the rather relaxed rules I had learned as a child.
She told me that she remembers sitting on your lap when she was about five while you played rummy at a card table with other adults. Once, Mindele’s reaction gave away that you had just picked up a good card and you quickly taught her about the importance of having a “poker face”. Even today, I wouldn’t dream of playing rummy by any other rules.
I am told that family was of utmost importance to you. And Mindy’s mother tells us that you were overjoyed to have grandkids and that you began smiling. She said you kvelled (gushed with excitement) whenever you saw them. I can see from the pictures that this was definitely true.
Towards the end of your life you began falling backwards, having memory issues and trouble swallowing. After going to the doctor’s several times, it was discovered that you were suffering from progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), a very rare disease that had only been first discovered in 1963.
After doing some research, Baba, it seems there may be a link between PSP and exposure to certain chemicals and metals, not unlike the ones you were exposed to in Poland and Germany during the Shoah when you were forced to work at the HASAG company making ammunitions.
Eventually, your condition worsened and you needed to be admitted to Maimonedes Geriatric Centre. You passed away on Saturday, February 15, 2003 in Montreal having lived for 78 years.
When visiting various locations in Poland, we read accounts of others who had survived and Mindy suddenly understood why you did certain things. She understood why you had a fear of the dogs she had growing up. She understood why you were always extra worried about Mindy running and falling, wanting to shield her from any pain. She understood why you always ate at the table with your feet pointed towards the door, no doubt a survival technique learned during the Holocaust. We read about the night terrors that plagued survivors.
Baba, I learned of a horrid time in your life that would have affected you in a traumatic way for the rest of your life. And yet you kept it to yourself, never wanting Mindy to learn of the darkest part of humanity, the darkest period in your life, shielding her from the atrocities of humanity itself. What strength that must have taken to absorb the aftermath of having survived such horror.
When I think of all that you endured, and I’m sure I don’t even know half of the trauma you must have experienced, I am a) in complete awe of your strength and b) utterly grateful to you. If it hadn’t been for your perseverance through what can only be described as one of the worst chapters of human history, my life would not be the same today. Thanks to you, I have the privilege to live my life with your granddaughter Mindy, the most wonderful and special person I have ever met.
And so thank you for all those mornings in concentration camps when you thought you couldn’t bear another day surrounded by death and misery, but got up anyway. Thank you for struggling through the pains of malnutrition, never getting a full meal for so many years. Thank you for persevering through the considerable grief of losing 28 relatives, nearly every member of your large family. Thank you for fighting through continuous intense fear, despair, and grief. Thank you for your part in surviving the Shoah!
I promise I will love and protect your shayne meydle each and every day. I will wrap her in love and warmth the way you did.
Forever grateful to you,
4 thoughts on “Baba’s Story – Surviving the Shoah”
Wow. What a beautiful letter…I wish I had the privilege to have met Mindy’s baba. A very strong woman..beautiful…full of wisdom. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story!
Nina | Lemons and Luggage
What a beautifully written post about such a difficult to write about.
I found Auschwitz to be such an emotional visit but having a personal connection and imagining an individual at any concentration camp must make it so much more intense.
Beautifully written story of a strong woman who defied the odds and survived! Thanks for sharing this moving story.
R L Martin de Lozano
I am totally overwhelmed with the love that this story was written with…all I can do is cry…