Family Histories

WEDU | Family Histories | Resources

Knowing, and articulating, the details of our family stories is a central mission of our group. We encourage you to share your family history as well. Please do so by contacting us.

 

Nick Dietz

My father was born in March of 1944 in Budapest, Hungary. At that time Hungary was allied w/ Germany, but its dictator, Admiral Horthy, had convinced Hitler that he needed the Jews for the war effort – mainly as slave labor. In April of ’44 the Nazis overthrew Horthy and began deporting the Jews. My grandfather was first deported to Auschwitz and then to Mauthausen, where he died of typhus just 2 weeks before the camp was liberated. My grandmother and my infant father managed to hide in one of the safe-houses set up by Raoul Wallenberg and so were able to survive the war. My father’s uncle was a World War I veteran (and also a member of the Hungarian National Fencing team that won the Gold Medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics). These two factors probably helped him survive the war.

In the 1950’s, my grandmother married my step-grandfather, who had survived Auschwitz and then served 5 years of hard labor in Soviet uranium mines for anti-Communist activities. After the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was crushed by the Soviets, my father, grandmother, and step-grandfather escaped to Vienna and then to America in 1959, where they settled in NY. Both my paternal grandmother and step-grandfather lived into their 80’s.

My mother’s side of the family lived in the Hungarian-controlled part of present-day Romania. My maternal grandmother, her sister, and their parents were all sent to Auschwitz in 1944. My great-grandparents were gassed on their first day there. My great-aunt, who was always rather scrawny, was also sent to the line for the gas chambers. Not wanting to be separated, my grandmother got on this line too. While they were on the line, Dr. Mengele came by, briefly spoke to them, smiled, and walked away. (I have no idea what he said.) Before they could be gassed, an Allied air raid hit the camp and they both managed to mix in with the older prisoners. Since they were supposed to be executed, neither my grandmother, nor my great-aunt was ever given number tattoos. Toward the end of the war, they were forced into the Auschwitz “death march” heading away from the camp and advancing Soviet forces. At some point during the march, the Nazi guards simply disappeared and the survivors were liberated by the Red Army.

My maternal grandfather entered Auschwitz with a wife and two young sons (ages 4 and 6). When the camp was liberated, all but my grandfather were dead. His sister and parents were also killed, but his 3 brothers survived. Two of them would eventually move to Israel; one left almost immediately after the war and went from Nazi concentration camp to British internment camp, as his ship was stopped by the British blockade and he was interned for almost a year on Cyprus. Upon his release, he fought in the 1948 War of Independence and was badly wounded, but survived with a bullet lodged in his lung. Today, he splits his time between Israel and the US.

My grandfather returned to his hometown of Satu Mare, Romania, where he met and married my grandmother, who had moved there with her sister, after learning of their parents’ deaths, to live with a friend they had made at Auschwitz. My mother was born in Satu Mare in December of 1946. My grandparents had applied for exit visas by the early 1950’s and finally received them in 1963. My grandfather didn’t live long enough to see that day. He died of a heart attack in 1961 and is buried in the town’s Jewish cemetery.

My mother and grandmother arrived in New York in 1963 and were joined by my great-aunt and great-uncle the following year. The inseparable sisters lived on the same floor in the same apartment building in Queens for the rest of their lives, dying almost exactly one year apart, both at age 81.

 

Sara Herczyska

First of all, my mother’s family. Her grandfather had a big gunpowder factory. He had two children: a daughter and a son. The son is my mother’s father. During the Holocaust he was in hiding. Now my father’s story. His dad was in a ghetto, but he survived. His mother was in Bucharest during the war. He died at her heart operation.

Both of my grandparents are still alive. They have children and grandchildren 🙂

 

Lauren Lebowitz

My grandmother, Renia Diament, was from Lodz, Poland. When the Nazis invaded Poland, her older sister knew that things were bad and that they needed to run away. Unfortunately her parents wouldn’t leave because they had small children. So, my grandmother’s father chose her to go with her sister. They thought they could secure somewhere to stay and then send for the family. With fake papers, my grandmother, then 15 years old, and her sister ran away. They walked and were captured several times but my grandmother was so beautiful and her sister so sharp-witted that they managed to survive. They ended up in Russia where they were then sent to work camps in Siberia. Through the International Red Cross, we learned that their family was killed 2 years later at Chelmno Extermination camp.

My grandfather was from Siedlice, Poland. One day, the Nazis came to take his father away. His little sister, Ruchla, was about 3 years old and she was hysterically crying and wouldn’t let go of her father’s leg. The German soldier then picked her up and threw her out of the window. After witnessing such horror, my grandfather cut off his peyas and ran away the next day. He ended up in Russia as well, where he met my grandmother. He survived the war with his sister, her husband and their son. We later found out that his brother had also run away and had been taken to a Russian prison in the Komi Republic, where he died.

 

Jason Steinhauer

To this day I know very few details about my grandparents during the war years. I never got to ask my grandfather any questions, because he died before I was born. All the questions we asked my grandmother growing up were greeted with a terse response, something like, “It was so horrible and so long ago.” Then she’d wave her hand in front of her face and stare at the wall. Only finally in the past few years, as age has softened her, has she told us any details, only about pre-invasion Poland: how her father had a well-known lumber business in Gorzkow, how the family had a Shabbos goy to help with chores on Saturdays, how they moved to Lublin because they thought it was safer. After the war I know she met my grandfather, and though she didn’t love him she agreed to marry him. They traveled to Germany together, live in a Displaced Persons camp outside Ulm, and eventually my mother was born. Then they moved to Canada.

Whatever my grandparents saw scarred them for the rest of their lives. My grandfather used to wake up screaming in the middle of night, haunted by nightmares up until he succumbed to cancer. And though I didn’t know my grandmother before, I believe she once had the energy and optimism that beautiful women seem to have (she was beautiful in her youth, and we know her long, blonde hair helped her survive the war). From the way she recalls her post war life, the Holocaust not only destroyed her home, her family, and way of life, but also the core of who she was and all she dreamed of. When the numbers seem unmanageable, the over six million impersonal, I think of my grandma and multiply her suffering by as much as my mind can grasp. Then I wish I knew more details.

 

Julie Tindell

My grandfather was in two labor camps; his story was documented by the Shoah Foundation. I am not totally sure about my grandmother and other relatives. I do know that my grandmother was in Romania through most of it. I believe that she traveled with her father between Bucarest and Vienna.

 

Max Stappler

I guess I’m a 2G. The day when the Hitler marched into Vienna, my mother’s best life-long friends instantly became her worst enemies. My parents were arrested and held in a local police station. A guard who happened to be one of my mother’s past boyfriends (my mom was beautiful and came from a rich family) let them escape. They would have been sent to the camps.

Using millions of dollars in bribe money, they made their way to the USA where I was born. They got in because my father’s family (they were poor) sent my father’s brother to NY years before. My father refused to talk about any of his experiences in Austria. However, at my father’s funeral in Florida, a distant relative showed up and told me some of the details. While I was cleaning out my father’s condo in Florida, I found my parents’ original Austrian passports with Nazi stamps in them.

I later found out there was a book published about the rest of my family in Poland. It’s called “The End of Days: A Memoir of the Holocaust” by Helen Sendyk.

 

Zelig Krymko

My mom’s parents died of starvation during the Nazi blockade of Leningrad. My mom was three and was able to be evacuated to Siberia, where she spent years in a Stalinist orphanage. My grandparents were buried in a mass grave outside of Leningrad – we don’t know the exact location.

 

Rivka Chaya Schiller

My maternal grandmother, Tola Pszenica Pinkus (1921-1999) was born and raised in Warsaw, Poland, where many generations of her family had lived and died. In fact, according to stories that my grandmother was told by her father, when she was a girl, a branch of the Pszenica (which in Polish and Russian means, “wheat”) had converted to Catholicism several generations earlier; however, since the surname was so uncommon (particularly, for Jews), he was certain that all Pszenicas were somehow related–Jewish or not. My grandmother was raised in the same neighborhood that I.B. Singer described so dramatically and nostalgically in his personal accounts of life growing up in pre-WWII Warsaw. My grandmother’s family was Chasidic, though her father was quite open-minded, and believed that my grandmother and her sisters should receive a decent education. My grandmother, who was apparently a very good student, was just beginning her final year of gymnasium (college-prep high school in Europe), at which time, the Germans invaded Poland—and Warsaw, in particular.

During the early bombings in Warsaw, my grandmother ran for cover in a cellar–along with other family members. This was a horrific and chaotic period, and thousands of people–Jews and Poles alike–died from the initial bombings. Indeed, Warsaw was mostly decimated by the end of WWII. Before long, the Warsaw Ghetto had been built, and my grandmother and other family members were forced to reside there.

Already by 1941, my grandmother had lost 1 or 2 brothers–due to the widespread starvation in the Warsaw Ghetto. Shortly thereafter, she was fortunate enough to bribe her way out of the Ghetto–ultimately fleeing to the countryside and making her way toward the district of Radom. During this period she moved about a great deal, using her knitting skills to find temporary work and lodgings on various farms. If I am not mistaken, she finally wound up in another ghetto in a town called Wolanow. By sometime in 1944 she had been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There, she was miraculously reunited with my great-aunt, Lola, whom she had, by that time, not seen since her escape from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941. My grandmother was nearly gassed to death, but in the gas chamber ante-room, in which women stripped naked–she threw herself upon the mercy of the examining Nazi doctor, who was present at the time. There were hundreds (if not more) women in that ante-room–who stood waiting for their unfortunate and inevitable ends. But amazingly, the doctor looked my grandmother over and proceeded to say, “Why are all of you here; you still appear healthy and able to work?” and immediately dismissed the group of women from entering the adjacent gas chambers. This was only one of the many miraculous moments that my grandmother experienced during those horrific years.

My great-aunt was able to use her “protektsye” to obtain a decent (i.e., not physically taxing) job in the Auschwitz-Birkenau “system.” Having now been to Auschwitz-Birkenau, it makes me fathom just how vast, well organized, and terrifying this complex “system” must have been. By the end of the war–sometime in or after January 1945, my grandmother and her sister Lola were removed from Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with many other inmates. They were forced to move westward on a death march; at this point the German forces were simply trying to escape from the fast approaching Russians. During these series of death marches, my grandmother and her sister spent short stretches of time in a couple of different camps: Ravensbruck (where there were many female inmates–along with Jehova’s Witnesses–among others), Melchow, and Recow. I am not certain of the spellings of all of these camps, because they were considered relatively “less significant” in the greater scheme of things. My grandmother and her sister were finally liberated by the Russian Forces in May of 1945.

Following the war, the 2 sisters returned to Warsaw, which was in utter ruins, to try and search for other surviving family members, but this was all to no avail. From a family of 7 children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and numerous cousins, they were unable to find a single living family member at that time. Later on, they would learn of a few first cousins who had managed to survive by fleeing to Russia or to other countries. Not long after the war ended, my grandmother worked in a camp that was organized by the Joint Distribution Committee in Otwock (near Warsaw) for child orphans. My grandmother related to me that even at the time, she remembered some of these children from during the war. Sometime after the war–perhaps in 1946, my grandmother and her sister made their way to Germany, where vast numbers of Jewish Holocaust survivors were now living. Before long, my great-aunt had married another survivor and was now living in Augsburg, Germany. My grandmother then met my grandfather, Shloime Pinkusiewicz–originally from Kielce, Poland—who was living nearby, in the Landsberg DP camp. My grandparents married in 1947 and a little over a year later, my mother, Miriam, was born on November 22, 1948. When my mother was about 9 months old, my grandparents and mother came to America, settling in Chicago. My great-aunt, her husband and toddler son were detained in terms of obtaining their visas until 1951–at which time, they also settled in Chicago, not far from my grandparents.

My grandfather, Shloime Pinkusiewicz (the surname was later shortened to “Pinkus” in the US) was born in Kielce, Poland in 1905. I have visited both Kielce and Warsaw, and can say that I was very much unimpressed and disappointed by what I witnessed in Kielce (as of 2002). Prior to the war my grandfather had a wife and 2 sons–all of whom were most likely sent to Treblinka. My grandfather was a butcher before the war and came from a very large family–his immediate family, alone, had 10 boys and 1 girl(though this was the offspring of 2 separate marriages).

During the war my grandfather was in a couple of camps–though I know less about his experiences than my grandmother’s. I believe that he was in the Kielce Ghetto, and then sent to a nearby camp called “Blyzin.” Ultimately, though, he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was liberated by the American Forces around the same time as my grandmother and great-aunt (May 1945), while en route to Dachau.

My grandfather was the only survivor from his entire family–though some years after the war, he learned of 2 first cousins who had managed to survive, by fleeing to Russia. After the war, my grandfather made his way to Germany, where he ended up living in the Landsberg DP camp. On July 4, 1946, there was an infamous pogrom perpetrated by the local Poles in Kielce, on the small community of 100 or so Jewish Holocaust survivors who had “dared” to return or settle in Kielce, following the war. Over 40 Jews were murdered in this pogrom–the largest single post-war pogrom to take place. In the wake of this vicious terror, Jews fled in droves from Poland–realizing that they would never again be welcome in the country that they had once called “home.”

 

Carly Becher

My grandmother was in Auschwitz-Birkenau. She lost her sister and mother. Her brother was in the US Army and found her post-liberation on her birthday. My grandfather was in the Riga ghetto as well as a few small camps. He lost his mother and 2 brothers while in the Riga ghetto.

My grandparents are alive and well today, residing in West Palm Beach, Florida. They are in a retirement community with several of their friends who were with them in the concentration camps.

 

Melisa Gitlitz

Maternal grandparents family names are Lebenberg (family from Bialy Podlaska) and Rolnik (family from Lodz) and Paternal family names is Gitlitz (from Vilna). My families settled in the NYC area after the war with any siblings, friends, and remain very close.

 

Elana Saperstein

My grandmother (from Verson Vison, Romania) and grandfather (from Lodz, Poland.) are Holocaust survivors. My mother, Bella, along with her twin brother Moshe, were born in Bergen-Belsen just after liberation. She came to NYC on a boat when she was 2 years old.

My grandmother never really spoke much of her experiences in the Holocaust since she suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. She and my grandfather lost large families in the camps. When my mother was 12, she had a breakdown on a city bus and told my grandmother the Germans were coming to get them. Things were never the same after that. I think the fact that my grandmother spoke so little of her experience made me realize how horrible it must have been. I felt it was taboo to ask any questions. Even when I had seen her on the last day of her life, her skin so soft, she was fighting, but at the same time she looked into my eyes with such kindness. Sometimes I wondered how she even smiled and laughed. You felt on top of the world when she was at her best. Then moments later she would yell at me with a vengeance, she just didn’t know what to do with the pain. Neither did I, so I comforted her.

Her brother said if it was not for the camps she would have been a doctor. I know that she survived because she was of value to the Germans. I think she also survived so she could shape my life. Her only brother who survived lives in Israel and I kick myself that all this time has passed and I have not found out more about him and their family. I plan on doing that this summer. He lectures at local schools in Israel.

My grandfather was married prior to meeting my grandmother in a liberated camp after the war, but his first wife was killed. I wish I would have met him but he passed on before I was born.