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Holocaust stories


Holocaust Stories

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

In the late 1990s a man I never heard of before, the late Ben Nachman, called to encourage me to start interviewing and profiling Holocaust survivors living in and around Omaha. Ben was a retired Omaha dentist who lost his entire extended family to the Holocaust. He set about a life’s mission to record survivor stories and that journey led him to amass a large collection of books on the topic, to befriend researchers, to become an official Shoah Visual Archive interviewer and to enlist me to capture and publish individuals’ stories. I ended up telling some two dozen Holocaust stories, mostly about survivors but also about rescuers, educators and scholars. I also wrote about Ben’s passion for doing the work he did in bringing Holocaust stories to light. Ben introduced me to many remarkable individuals. Thanks to him I was privileged to share the testimonies of survivors,  the heroics of rescuers who saved others and the depths of experiences that shaped the Holocaust.

Several years ago the Institute for Holocaust Education in Omaha acquired some of these stories for visitors to read on its website. In this post are links to those stories and to other Holocaust stories I have written.

Founded in 2000, the Institute has a goal to ensure that the tragedy and history of the Holocaust is remembered. The nonprofit organization provides appropriate, fact-based instruction and materials to students, educators and the public to enhance Holocaust studies in the hope of inspiring communities to create a more just and equitable society.

The IHE has reached hundreds of teachers and more than 100,000 students in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas with its educational resources, workshops, survivor testimony and integrated arts programming. The Institute also supports Holocaust survivors in our community.

For more information about the Institute’s work, visit–

http://www.ihene.org/

 

 

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A Not-so-average Joe Tells His Holocaust Story of Survival

September 8, 2011 7 comments

Another of my Holocaust stories is featured here. Joe Boin tells his story of defiance and survival.

A Not-so-average Joe Tells His Holocaust Story of Survival

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

 

RBJH activities director Maggie Conti spots Joe Boin tooling around the Home in his wheelchair decorated with the Husker flag.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s not as if Joe Boin hadn’t spoken about his Holocaust survivor tale before. He shared his story for the Shoah Visual History Project. He’s told it to school groups. He helped form Nebraska Survivors of the Holocaust to raise awareness and to commission public memorials as reminders of what happened.

But until now the Berlin, Germany native never laid out his story for publication. The time seemed right. The 87-year-old widower resides at the Rose Blumkin Home, where he scoots around in his motorized wheelchair with aplomb, American and Go Big Red flags affixed to the back. The amiable man makes friends easily and lives a credo of looking ahead, not back, but the searing memories never dim. Alone with his thoughts, his odyssey is always near.

His wife Lilly, a fellow survivor he met and married after the war, passed away 14 years ago. A Vienna, Austria native, she told her survivor tale in her 1989 book, My Story. Everyone close to her died in the Shoah.

Remarkably, Joe’s entire immediate family made it out alive. His parents are long gone and his only two siblings live in Israel. Palestine is where Joe, Lilly, his sisters and eventually his folks migrated after the war. Joe and Lilly’s two children, Heni Alice and Gustav Daniel, were born and raised in Israel. Joe suffered wounds in the fight for Israel’s independence. The couple’s children preceded them to America and Joe and Lilly followed in 1966.

After hopskotching the country to be near their children, Joe and Lilly made it to Nebraska in the late-1970s, residing first in Lincoln before settling in Omaha.

Today, Joe lives for his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He sees them when he can but they all live out of state. He’s spending Hanukkah and New Year in Phoenix with his daughter and her family.

Joe insists his story is nothing special. “I’m not too interesting,” he says through his thick accent. “I’m not important.” But Joe knows better. He knows that while every survivor story shares certain commonalities, each is its own wonder, even miracle, of fortitude and fate. He knows, too, it’s his obligation to bear witness.

Born Joachim Boin, he was the only son of Arthur and Bianca Boin, an educated Orthodox Jewish couple whose roots were in Germany and Poland, respectively. Joe’s father was a World War I veteran who fought in the German Army. He had his own accounting firm. Joe’s younger sisters, Ruth and Gisela, soon followed.

The family lived in a mixed district of Berlin where Jews and Christians lived and did business together. Next door was a Christian family, the Kruegers, who were old friends. They took an active hand in helping the Boins once the Nazi’s anti-Jewish laws took effect. They even ended up hiding Gisela during the war.

Before the rein of terror, Joe’s early childhood was idyllic. “It didn’t last long but it gave me a taste of what life could be or can be,” he said. “I had dreams but it became impossible for me to even follow them after Hitler came — that all went.”

Growing up in Berlin, Joe witnessed the fascist fervor in its huge rallies and parades that kindled the worst kind of nationalism. The mass public displays included virulent anti-Semetic screeds, all meant to sway the Aryan citizenry, to inflame hatred, to intimidate Jews and other supposed enemies of the state. The Nazi regime tapped the fears of a shaken people by offering security and scapegoats.

“Like everywhere in the world Germany was in a very deep depression, people were out of work and they had big families,” noted Joe, “and so Hitler came and said, ‘Well, if you elect me as your leader I will put bread on your table and I will make sure you have enough money to pay your bills and rent.’ Of course, everybody went for it.”

Back row: Joe, right, his nephew Yehuda Salomon, left, niece Rachel Kominsky, and sister, Ruth; front row: Arthur and Bianca Boin and a nephew between them, Jerusalem, 1953.

To the Christian majority Hitler appealed to widespread prejudice in blaming the Jews for Germany’s decline since World War I. For most Jews, the rhetoric and restrictions aimed at them seemed nothing they hadn’t seen or heard before.

“In the very beginning when he was elected he organized the political police and then when people found out what really was going to happen it was too late, they couldn’t do much about it,” said Joe.

A strapping, athletic young man, Joe competed as an elite Maccabi club tennis player, boxer and gymnast, yet Jews like him were ostracized from German national teams and games by the Nazi regime’s racial policies. This exclusion was a bitter pill to swallow for Jewish athletes when Berlin hosted the 1936 Olympics.

“It was pretty painful, I’ll tell you that.”

Amid unprecedented propaganda and pageantry the Nazis attempted to gloss over their campaign of hate against Jews and while some observers saw through the facade most of the world did not. As far back as the Berlin Olympics, Joe’s family was warned of the impending danger facing them.

“In 1936 my mother’s brother, who lived in Berlin, too, came to my dad and said, ‘Arthur, now is the time to leave this country.’ My dad looked at him and said, ‘I was in World War I, I pay my taxes, I have a legitimate business, why should I leave?’ If anybody had any idea what was going to happen, they would have left,” said Joe, but the Boins like most people could not conceive that what seemed another pogrom would become the systematic genocide known as The Final Solution.

Until the fall of 1938 things were tolerable. Jews couldn’t go where and when they pleased as easily as they once could, owing to growing restrictions on their movements and activities, but they didn’t fear for their safety. Clearly, though, life was far from normal and things were getting more tense. Roving gangs of Nazi Brown Shirts were becoming a menace and the mere fact of being a Jew, identified by a Yellow Star, made you a target of these thugs.

The Kruegers, the Christian family who lived next door to the Boins, became a lifeline. “Our neighbors were very nice people and they supplied us with some food and so on, sometimes without taking payment, so that we could live a little,” said Joe.

When he was 15 he and his family moved to a town, Cottbus, where Joe’s father felt they would be more insulated from the Nazi grip. They did find there some kind Christians who lent aid just as the Kruegers had.

“Like everywhere else there were wonderful people that were kind to Jews, that tried to help,” said Joe.

But there ultimately was no escaping the threat. Things took a turn for the worse on Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938. Nazi goons came to the Boin home to take Joe and his father away to the town square where other Jewish residents had been rounded up and their homes and businesses vandalized.

“They took us to a marketplace where they had us surrounded by Nazis and by private citizens and they put dogs on one side and they gave us a spoon and we had to pick up the crap. We got beaten pretty bad. A lot of people got killed there, too. They put bodies in the synagogue and afterwards they burned it.”

 

 

Lilly and Joe Boin and their children, Gustav Daniel and Heni and a neighborhood child in Tiberias, 1953

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Joe, the nightmarish incident marked the end of his boyhood innocence and the start of a cruel new reality based on instinct, chance and survival.

“My life as a child (ended). I had two years of high school before Hitler kicked us out.” From then on out, life was a harrowing affair. “We were treated like animals, not as human beings, we had to walk on the street, we couldn’t walk on the sidewalks, we couldn’t go into certain stores.”

More and more, Jews found themselves targeted, isolated, marginalized. Then, in 1939, the year Germany invaded Poland and Czechoslovakia and instigated World War II, the family was forcibly split up. A band of Nazis came to the Boin home, this time demanding only Joe come with them. He described what happened:

“At midnight they knocked on our door, shouting, ‘We want your boy Joachim.’ I came to the door and asked, ‘What do you want?’ ‘We have come for you,’ they said, and they grabbed me and hit me and put me on a truck. ‘Where are we going; do I have to take something?’ ‘No, where we’re going you don’t need nothing.’”

The ominous reply presaged the unfolding horror of the next six years, a black time when he and his family were separated from everything they knew, including each other, as each endured his or her own survival odyssey. Joe, his father, his mother and his sister Ruth all ended up in either labor or death camps.

Only his baby sister Gisela was spared. She was hidden by the Kruegers in the Christian family’s Berlin home, where for three-and-a-half years she passed a secreted-away life that if discovered would have meant certain death for her and her benefactors.

“My dad always said to them (the Kruegers), ‘You know, if the authorities find out they’re going to kill you too,’ and they said, ‘We are responsible to God, not to him (Hitler), and we feel if there’s any way to help somebody and to do something that prevents anybody from getting killed, we do it.’”

This courageous attitude struck a chord in Joe, who has tried living up to the kindnesses people bestowed on him and his family.

“It’s amazing in a situation like this that you find people that have a different way of thinking and they feel it’s immoral for others to be killed or whatever just because they’re Jewish. People helped even though they knew if they got caught they would get shot. Despite the risk, they said, ‘No, we have a responsibility to God, but not to Mr. Hitler, and whatever happens, happens,’ and that’s why quite a few Jewish people had a chance to live.”

From the time Joe was taken away in the middle of the night to the war’s end, six years passed before he was reunited with his family. He would survive six camps in four countries, counting the displaced persons and refugee camps he ended up in after the war, before the ordeal was over.

“The first camp I was in was Sachsenhausen — it was a concentration camp close to Berlin where all kinds of political prisoners, religious people were together, gypsies too. Just a very, very interesting group of people, and then from there they distributed them to the other camps.”

He didn’t know anyone at Sachsenhausen.

“I didn’t want to know anybody because in a situation like this it’s very difficult to trust people you don’t know. Sometimes you had to, but unfortunately you had a lot of Jewish people who tried to inform the Nazis of what was going on, hoping they might have a better life, which didn’t happen.”

Upon his arrival, Joe was consumed with anger over the injustice of it all.

“I was 17-years-old and the only crime I’d committed was I was born to a Jewish mother. That’s why I could never understand why I had to go through all this. I wasn’t thinking about anything else but why I’m here. I didn’t steal anything, I didn’t murder anyone — why am I here, what’s the reason? Why couldn’t I get my education so I could become somebody and get further on in life later? Why? — because I was Jewish. I could not get over that.”

Then some things happened those first 24 hours in camp to change his outlook.

“I was so mad that when we came in the barracks in the evening I said, ‘I think if I ever by any chance come out of this place I will kill every German that comes in my way.’ Somebody tapped me on my shoulder and said, ‘No my son, if you do this you’re not any better than the Nazis.’” It started him thinking.

“The next morning we had to stand in a roll call and an elderly man fell down and, of course, I bent down trying to help him and one soldier came and shoved this rifle in my back and so I fell down, too. We were carried into the barracks and the older prisoners told me, ‘If you want to stay alive you don’t see anything around you.’ Well I was a person that wanted to see what life was all about and I was trying to live a little longer if I could, and so I followed this advice.”

Joe and Heni ride a donkey in Ein Kerem, 1953.

Joe was also befriended by an elderly Catholic priest whose selfless example made a big impact on him. When the meager bread ration was given out, Joe said, the old priest gave away his portion to Joe and other young people. “He told us, ‘You need it more than I do, I have nothing to look forward to, it’s God’s will.’ It taught me there are people who really care for other people.”

After two years at Sachsenhausen Joe was transported to Buchenwald in 1941.

“Buchenwald was horrible for me because I was delegated to be on the railroad platform as trains came in from Holland and Belgium. I would pick up the suitcases and possessions people carried. The hardest thing for me was seeing women come with little children in their arms and the children, some not even a year old, were taken away and thrown on the platform. Some guards did much more worse — they used them as target practice. I still have nightmares about this.”

It took all of Joe’s self-discipline to not respond, not intervene, not retaliate.

“I was strong enough I could probably have killed some guards but that wouldn’t do me any good because two minutes later people would be shot on the spot. It doesn’t help me or nobody else either. It was a hard decision to make but unfortunately that’s the way it worked.”

Living conditions were abysmal in every concentration camp, but he said the treatment by the Buchenwald guards was particularly harsh.

“The guys that watched us were much more brutal in Buchenwald than they were in Sachsenhausen. They got a bottle of whiskey in the morning to drink to get them in the mood of tormenting us. They were specially trained, they had only one thing in mind, make sure the people don’t get out of here alive.”

As part of the Nazi program of humiliating prisoners, he said, inmates were given absurd tasks meant to break their mind and spirit.

“We had to do idiotic things, like they had a room that needed to be cleaned and they give us a toothbrush to clean the walls. It made you feel degraded. This is the evil of the world — to not treat us like human beings. They didn’t want you to feel as a human being anymore — well, they didn’t have any luck with me.”

Death, hunger, toil and beatings became every day occurrences.

“In our barracks we had bunk beds, with maybe four or five people laying there in a clump, and very often when you woke up in the morning somebody was dead. It took me a long time to get over those deaths,” he said.

Hardening himself to his reality became a necessary thing.

“I always thought a little bit different — that I’m in a situation where I have to do certain things and I’m looking for a loophole maybe somewhere to improve my situation. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I was able to be pretty open with the people that were surrounding me in trying to explain how important it was for our little group here to hold together and not go to the Nazis, that we had to stick together and try to improve our lives — that was the only way to make it happen. Some of them did and some of them didn’t.

“Some didn’t have the will (to live) anymore. One guy told me, ‘What difference does it make?’ Some people had a little bit of sense left. I had the will to live. I prayed to God, ‘I know if you want you will give me the strength to fight back in a way to keep my mouth shut when I should,’ instead of saying something that would give them the opportunity to beat me or to restrict food from me.”

 

 

Joe visits his sisters, Gisella, left, and Ruth in Netanya, Israel, in 1984.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That resolve and restraint, he said, “was not very easy because when you work hard 10-12 hours a day with nothing to eat your mind is mush. I tried to get rest as much as I could because I knew that’s what I needed. Somehow I still kept on going.”

He kept alert for work details that might provide a scrap more food or be out of harm’s way. “If somebody was really weak I jumped in and told them, ‘I’ll do it.’” That may have saved his life when he got to Auschwitz-Birkenau in late ’44.

“I ended up in Auschwitz,” whose dark reputation, he said, preceded it — “somehow it went from camp to camp what happened there. I knew if I would stay there that would be it. My strength was down, we were beaten every day, we had no good food, we had to work. I wasn’t Superman, I just was a simple human being who can take only so much. I was lucky to get out of there.”

It just so happened a work detail was formed and Joe was in the right place at the right time to be assigned it. “I was there three weeks and then some officer came and he saw me and put me to work in the stone quarries on the Polish-German border, near Hindenburg. There was a big forest around us. We slept in tents.”

In early 1945 the quarry camp came under bombardment from advancing Russian forces and Joe and some fellow prisoners used the cover of chaos to flee.

“There were about 10 of us and we said, ‘Let’s go, no matter what.’ We escaped in the big forest there. Some of us were pretty weak. We were afraid the guards might set their dogs on us, so we tried to put as much distance between us and them, but most of the guards had fled    — they didn’t want to get in the Russians’ hands.”

Ruth tends the gravesites of their parents, Arthur and Bianca Boin, Netanya, 1978.

After foraging on the road for six or seven days Joe and his mates were liberated by Russian Army troops. “We were lucky,” he said, “there was a Jewish major in their ranks who spoke Yiddish and he warned us not to eat the uncooked bacon the Russians spread out to feed us. He said after what we’d been through it would kill us.”

The major didn’t warn about the bottled drinks the Russians offered.

“It looked like water to me, I was so thirsty, so I drank and I almost died — it was 100 percent vodka,” said Joe, who can smile about it now.

Joe weighed 82 pounds when rescued. He spent two months in a Russian military hospital. Once he regained his strength, he made his way to Holland, mostly by hitching rides with G.I. transports. His family had agreed to meet there if they were ever separated during the war. His mother’s brother had fled there. He hoped his family had survived but he had no real expectation of seeing them again.

Amazingly, he said, “we all came out of it. We were lucky. Slowly but surely everybody made their way to Holland.” His mother had survived as a laundress for the German military, his father escaped a camp before being pressed into duty making military roads, Ruth worked in a labor munitions camp and Gisela remained hidden.

The Boins spent the next year in a D.P. camp, where Joe met the woman who became his wife, the former Lilly Engelmann Margulies. She was a survivor of Theresienstadt (Terezin). Having lost her husband, parents and siblings, Lilly was all alone and the Boins became her protectors and friends. There was a considerable age difference between Joe and Lilly but the attraction was mutual.

“We liked each other. Then, of course, I asked her one day ‘will you marry me?’ and she looked at me and said, ‘no,’ and I didn’t take no for an answer, I wanted an explanation. So she told me, ‘Well, I’m 14 years older than you,’ and I said, ‘So what?’ So we got married in Amsterdam and we were married 50 years.”

With no prospects or permits for starting a new life in war-ravaged Europe, the couple, along with Ruth and Gisela, embarked on an epic journey to reach the promised land of Palestine. Traveling with no visas, they made their way to France and Belgium.

Out on the Mediterranean Sea they risked being turned back by authorities or being turned in by mercenaries, but enough angels helped their cause. Making the trip more hazardous was Lilly’s pregnancy. They arrived in Haifa on a Turkish coal boat in 1946. Among the early Holocaust survivors in Palestine, their testimony of the genocide they witnessed fell on deaf ears at first.

“When we first went to Israel, our own people didn’t believe us. They said, ‘Oh you just want sympathy,’ until some of their relatives came and told them. It’s something people couldn’t imagine, that human beings can do this to other human beings, and to children.”

Like many survivors Joe was angry the world largely turned a blind eye to the plight of millions. He said while some lost their faith, he did not.

“Many people said, ‘Where was God? I don’t believe in God anymore.’ That’s your privilege, but let me tell you something, it had nothing to do with God — people are the ones who did it, you can’t blame everything on God. What happened, happened, I cannot repair it, I have to go with what I have now. You have to live with it and you have to make the best you can to keep on living.”

He joined the Israeli Army and was shot in the stomach during a rescue mission. A doctor told Lilly he wouldn’t make it.

“Here I am,” said Joe, the perpetual survivor. He worked odd jobs overseas. In the U.S. he was a botanical gardens curator before going into business as a locksmith. His picks can open anything but safes.

His wife Lilly died in 1995 after a long illness that saw him care for her at home. “I thought my life came to an end,” he said, “but there’s a reason for everything. I never want anybody to feel sorry for me. I’m grateful for what I have.”

He’s dismayed atrocities still go on around the world. “People killing in the name of I don’t know what. How is that possible? Why didn’t people learn and see what comes out of this? You have to sit down with people and talk to them — there always is a way if you have the will to do it.”

 

 

Joe’s sister Ruth, right, visits Joe and Lilly Boin in Omaha in 1991; they’re pictured in front of the newly opened Beth El Synagogue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A supporter of Omaha’s TriFaith Initiative, Joe counts Christians and Muslims among his friends and he believes the more interfaith, multicultural dialogue there is, the less likely it is genocide will occur. He does not allow his survivor past to define him but instead uses the experience to practice and preach tolerance.

“You know, the memories are fading away, but this is something that’s inside you. I will never forget what happened, but I am a person that looks forward, I don’t want to look back. I learned not to hate anymore. It gives me more of a reason to try to see that other people are treated like human beings,” he said.

“Try to help whoever you can because you never know – someday you might need help and they will help you. I love life, I love people. I believe in live-and-let-live. Enjoy life as much as you can and do good as much as you can. If you’re a good person and trying to live in the world you have to respect other people’s beliefs, and I try to do that.”

The Kripke Library’s copy of Lilly’s book contains an inscription Joe could have written hmself: “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.”

He’s written his own Holocaust reflections, including a prayer:

“I am thankful that I could see life from every angle. I learned how to be rich and how to be poor, how to give orders and how to take orders, how to live in a big family with a lot of friends and how it is to be completely alone. I learned to appreciate health, so I could endure pain. I met the ugly, so I was able to enjoy the beauty. I know how to live in a mansion, but be content to live in a bathroom … to own a Mercedes and to walk barefoot the dusty, stony road. When I was in prison I realized the value of freedom …

“I have met people who found consolation. In helping those who could not help themselves they had put their own life in danger…I saw goodness at its best and bestiality at its worst … I got the taste of almost unbearable disaster and I was blessed to have again a wonderful family, who brought so much happiness into my life … Thank you God … for all the experiences I had in two ways of life.”

Sisters of the Shoah: Three Survivor Tales, Three Golden Fates, Three Iron Wills

April 18, 2011 4 comments

Jews being arrested in the Warsaw Ghetto. The ...

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It has been a humbling experience for me to meet and profile a number of Holocaust survivors. The following story I did for the Jewish Press tells the remarkable tale of three sisters who all managed, after much misery and loss, to get out of the hell of the Holocaust alive. The story is one of a series I have done for that newspaper, with assorted others for other publications, that personalize the horror and the hope that survivors have to share with the rest of us. Rachel, Mania, and Bluma are three women I am not likely to forget.  I dare say after reading their tale you will not forget them either. After the war they all ended up in Omaha, where they still reside today as witnesses whose testimony must be read and heard. On this blog you will find several other Holocaust stories I’ve written, and I will be adding more over time. The ranks of the survivors are fast dwindling, making it ever more imperative their stories be told.. The article won, in a second-place tie, the David Frank Award for Excellence in Personality Profiles at the June 3, 2004 American Press Association’s Simon Rockower Awards. This article and several other survivor articles I wrote can be found  on the Institute for Holocaust Education website, http://ihene.org/. And this Sisters of the Shoah piece is also featured on The Jewish Magazine website- http://www.jewishmag.com/90mag/shoahsisters/shoahsisters.htm.

Sisters of the Shoah: Three Survivor Tales, Three Golden Fates, Three Iron Wills

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

This is not just another Holocaust story. It is the chronicle of how three sisters survived, alone and together, a series of Nazi concentration camps during World War II to tell their story of human endurance. That not one or two but all three made it out alive is, as the eldest puts it today, “Impossible. I don’t know how we lived. We survived with nothing…not even our hair.”

Only girls at the time, the sisters, all of whom resettled in Omaha, displayed a remarkable resolve that belied their years and that still defines them today. Their individual stories have been told, but never their combined saga. Sisters of the Shoah in name and in blood, the former Bojman girls are old women now but their spirit burns with the rigor of youth. Known by their married names — Mania Friedman, Rachel Rosenberg, Bluma Polonski — they remain defiant witnesses to the Nazi genocide that killed millions, including their parents and brothers, and that would have claimed them, too, but for their three golden fates and three iron wills.

“It is sad and it is deep,” is how a teary-eyed Rachel, the middle sister, describes her and her siblings’ odyssey. It’s a legacy that’s had a profound effect on their families, too. For example, Rachel’s three children witnessed her frequent crying jags and their father Carl’s obsession with the Holocaust. Rachel said in recent years she promised herself, “You’re not going to be miserable…live as happy as you can…see the light instead of the dark.’ I’ve tried to help myself to live normal and to be like everybody else, which I’m not. But I try.” A son, Stuart Rosenberg, said despite the nightmare his mother and maternal aunts experienced “they are truly remarkable people with an incredible appreciation for life.” The significance of their story, he added, is in the resilience and resistance their survival represents.

Rachel Rosenberg

Not all survivors have fared as well. A cousin of the sisters never got over losing her family, including two sons, to the Holocaust. She committed suicide. “My cousin didn’t want to live. I do. I like life,” said Rachel. “In my eyes, I have everything I want. I’m the richest person in the world.”

The women today enjoy the comfortable lifestyle they made for themselves here, but the horrid memories of what brought them to America are never far away. This past Mother’s Day, the oldest sister, Mania, encapsulated the dichotomy of their lives in her heavily accented voice, “Our life is beautiful and miserable, you understand? After the war we had no family. We had nothing. How many times I said, God, take me away not to suffer too much.’ We went through more than hell. But this is our life. We have to take everything. At least I have pleasure from my children. All over I have pictures of my children,” she said, gesturing at the dozens of photos adorning her refrigerator, walls, hutches and tables. “As long as I’m alive I want to see them, not hidden away in a drawer, because we have family again.”

The phone rings and it’s Rose, the mother of Mania’s only granddaughter, Jennifer, whom she adores. “Oh, thank you, Rose. Happy Mother’s Day to you, too. You give me joy in my life,” Mania says. “You give me the biggest diamond that can be — Jennifer.” When Mania mentions she’s telling her Holocaust story to a visitor, the conversation abruptly ends. She explains that her daughter cannot deal with the subject: “She said, Mom, I don’t want to hear it.'”

For Bluma, the youngest sister, the specter of the Holocaust is not as immediate as it is for her older siblings but it is still ever present. Three years ago she made a pilgrimage with her children and several of her grandchildren to the Polish death camps. “This was my wish. To make this journey before I go away, because I’m a survivor and when we go away nobody’s going to be left anymore,” she said. “It was a sad wish. My husband didn’t want to go because it broke his heart. I said, If you’re not going to go, I will. I have to.’ I wanted to say goodbye to the ashes.”

Bluma and her family visited Treblinka, where her mother and youngest brother were killed, as well as Auschwitz, where she and Mania were imprisoned together and where Rachel and another brother were confined in a separate compound. “In Treblinka I kneeled down, I cried and I talked to my mom and my little brother. I said, I’m here. I’ve just come to see you and say goodbye.’ I said a kadish and after the prayers it started thundering and lightning…like she heard me. It was very emotional.” At Auschwitz, she went inside the very barracks, No. 25, where she and Mania were interned. “I thought I would have a nervous breakdown,” she recalls. Finally, she went to her hometown, which she found stripped bare of its Jewish heritage. “There’s nothing left,” she said. “It’s like we never existed.” Back home, she counts her blessings. “I’m thankful to God for every single day.”

Born into the Polish-Jewish family of Rose and Morris Bojman, Mania, Rachel and Bluma grew up alongside their three younger bothers in a stately home in the largely Jewish rural village of Wolanow, Poland. The orthodox family was well off, with their father working as a cattle buyer and running his own butcher shop and their mother earning money as a seamstress. The three sisters were leading typical schoolgirl lives, with Rachel learning the seamstress trade, when Poland was invaded by German forces in 1939 and the first anti-Jewish decrees were enacted soon thereafter. The mounting menace turned violent when German bombers attacked the village and an explosion destroyed a house across the street from the Bojman residence, killing and maiming several inhabitants. “I remember the bedding was wet with blood. People were cut up in little pieces,” Rachel said.

With their movements and actions curtailed, the Jewish populace was restricted to one small section of town where the Bojmans resided. Some of Wolanow’s Jewish residents were thrown out of their own homes and herded with refugees from neighboring hamlets into the small Jewish ghetto, which more and more resembled a prison. The Bojmans’ home was soon overcrowded with dozens of displaced people. Occupying German forces increasingly isolated their captives by driving Jews into concentration camps, dividing families in the process, throughout the countryside. It was at this time the Bojman family was irretrievably split-up. The sisters’ mother fled with their youngest brother, Motel, to the nearby village of her brother and his family, where she felt they’d be safe. The rest of the family was taken to Szalkow, a holding site on an area farm where conditions were far better than anything the sisters would know again until after the war ended six years later. Then, in the cold calculations of the Holocaust, Mania, Bluma, a brother, Aaron, their father and a cousin, Carl Rosenberg, were inexplicably sent to Camp Wolanow while Rachel and her brother Jacob stayed at Szalkow.

To this day, Rachel cannot fathom why she and her brother were separated from her family at Wolanow. “That’s such a puzzle in my mind,” she said. As to why her mother went off alone with her baby brother, she speculates she acted out of fear and denial. “My mother preached, The Germans will not hurt us — they are a cultured people.'” Before leaving, Rachel’s mother gave her a diamond ring. Rachel bribed a German guard with that ring and found someone to drive her to the village where her mother and brother were staying. “I went to get them,” Rachel recalls, but her mother resisted. “No, give me two more days,’ she said. She cooked for me my favorite meal and made a package for me to take back to my camp.” By the time Rachel came back, the village had been ethnically cleansed and, as she later learned, her loved ones taken to Treblinka, where they perished.

Camp Wolanow. This was the first of the camps Mania and Bluma weathered. As in other camps, males and females were segregated in overcrowded living barracks and on grueling work details. The sisters’ father and their brother Aaron were there, too. Operated by the Germans, the holding camp was manned by many Polish guards and terrorized by roving Ukrainian execution squads. The close quarters, unsanitary conditions, poor food and inadequate shelter became a breeding ground for disease. Typhus swept through the camp that winter, felling the sisters’ father, who grew too weak to work, excuse enough to be killed. Bluma, then only 10, snuck into her father’s barracks to comfort him and to hide him from the guards, but she was spotted and thrown into a crude shack known as “the death house.” There, “cold, barefoot and crying,” she cowered among the other prisoners awaiting almost certain death. When word of her capture reached her cousin Carl, already a young man who’d earned special privileges inside the camp because of his tailoring skills, he came to her rescue. Half-delirious with typhus himself, Carl pleaded with the guards for her release. As Bluma recalls, “He said, Please, let her live a little more. She’s my cousin.’ And they let me out.”

Survival at Wolanow was determined in part by luck, the guards’ whims and inmates’ own wits, wile and will. To survive, Bluma and Mania became hustlers and scavengers. Bluma, the smaller of the two, was adept at sneaking in and out of tight spaces to steal boots or brooms, which they made, or other valuable items the girls came across in camp and traded for scraps of food. “I was the provider,” Bluma said. “I was very aggressive.” In their foraging for supplies, the sisters said they got brazen enough to dig a shallow tunnel — with their bare hands — in the snow and ice. The tunnel, beginning under a section of barbed wire on the camp’s perimeter fence, ran into the surrounding woods and led to a clearing a few yards away. There, Bluma said, she and Mania came above ground and headed straight for a house occupied by a friendly Gentile family. The woman of the house knew the Bojmans from before the roundups and gave food and shelter to the two brave little girls, who scurried to her place via the tunnel whenever they got hungry.

On what proved to be the last run the girls made to their secret sanctuary, Bluma said the woman informed them it was getting too dangerous to aid them any longer and she forbid them from returning. That night, Bluma said she and Mania hid in the woods when they heard machine gunfire coming from the camp. Returning to camp at daybreak, she said they came upon a scene of surreal carnage, with hundreds of frozen corpses, riddled by bullets, laying on the ground as mourning relatives weeped over them. Among the bereaved was their father, crying over the death of his son and their brother, Aaron, a victim of the mass execution.

As related to the sisters by their father, Aaron was selected for a contingent of prisoners earmarked for another camp but, instead, he hid in a barrel, hoping to elude his captors. When a guard overturned the barrel Aaron was killed with the others on site. The bodies, according to Mania, were buried in a mass grave.

From Wolanow, Mania, Bluma, their father and Carl were transported to a Polish transit camp, Starahowice, where they were detained before being shipped, by train, to dreaded Auschwitz. Degradation and violation ruled their lives at Auschwitz. Like many others, Mania and Bluma endured torture. “The women guards went with their bare hands inside us and tore things,” Mania said. “We were screaming. We were bleeding. Oh, God. I don’t know how we got children. This was a miracle.” The sisters’ father was transported from Auschwitz and eventually gassed in Buchenwald.

Meanwhile, Rachel, along with Jacob and assorted cousins and aunts, were deported from Szalkow, where they enjoyed relative comfort, to Blizyn, a harsh labor camp where they were “cold, hungry and dirty.” She and other women were forced to carry heavy cement blocks for buildings under construction. Jacob tended animals. Eventually, Rachel was spared the hardship and indignity of being a human pack mule when the guards called a group of inmates together one day and asked who could sew. She raised her hand and was reassigned to a giant sweatshop where she joined hundreds of other prisoners making uniforms.

The drudgery of work-filled days and the anxiety of uncertain fates left inmates drained by night, when they “sat around for hours and talked,” Rachel recalls, “about why they are doing this to us, what’s going to be tomorrow, who’s going to live through this, who’s going to tell? We dreamed. We looked outside and saw there’s still a world. We saw people working in the fields. The sky was blue. The birds still flew. I thought, God, if I could only be a bird. We were 16-17 years old. We never dated. We never knew boys. We were afraid but there was nothing we could do. The hurt was so deep. The ocean wasn’t as deep as our hurt.”

The pain only got worse at Auschwitz. “Well, I knew this was going to be our end,” Rachel recalls thinking upon arriving at that foul place. It was by pure chance she became aware of her sisters’ presence there. One day while walking in a line of prisoners at the edge of the compound that bordered another enclosure she saw Nathan, the brother of her cousin Carl, working on a railroad gang. They made eye contact and “he threw me a chunk of bread.” Further down the line she spotted her sisters laboring on the tracks the transport trains ran on. “I went closer to the gate, up to the barbed wire, and I screamed, Mania…Bluma,’ and they saw me and they waved to me. I threw them pieces of that bread.” It was the last time she saw her sisters until months after their liberation.

“The living was very bad there,” Rachel said. “Every morning we had to stand in line to be counted. We had to be naked for Mengela (the Nazi war criminal, Joseph Mengela, who experimented on inmates). We were afraid. He chose — this girl to the left, this girl to the right…you go to work, you go to die.” As Bluma puts it, “If you had bones, you were not good. If you still had a little meat, you could still work. One day he made a selection and I was on the wrong side and they took me away. I was scared, but I couldn’t cry anymore — our tears were dried up. We were numb already. We were like cattle led to the slaughter.” Bluma said she escaped the ovens when, in a roll call, she gave the wrong number tattooed on her arm and rejoined Mania in the fit-to-work group.

At Auschwitz Rachel once again lugged cement blocks. On their way to work Rachel and fellow inmates passed by a crematorium. “We saw the flames and the black smoke,” she recalls. “We said, Well, next time it will be us.’ We knew there was no tomorrow for us.” In a building piled high with victims’ discarded apparel she salvaged fabric to clothes for her, relatives and barracks-mates.

It was at Auschwitz the sisters’ brother Jacob met his end. Rachel, who’d been his protector during their life in detention, took his death especially hard. “One day we were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time when the SS, who targeted the young, took him away from me,” she said. “I didn’t want to let him go. I cried and begged them to let me go with him or to take me instead, but they just grabbed him, threw me down and led him away to a truck. I couldn’t do anything but put a sweater around him so he’d be warm. I followed the truck as far as I could.” Having him wrenched away from her to be gassed is, she said, “my biggest hurt.” It is why, she feels, she’s been an “overprotective” mother.

Although the sisters had no inkling of it at the time, by early 1945 the Nazis were in disarray and inmates like themselves still able enough to work, albeit malnourished, were in a position to stay alive and be liberated by advancing Allied troops. As if surviving Auschwitz were not enough, the sisters defied fate once more when commandeered to work as human slaves in munitions factories on the Czech-German border — Mania and Bluma in Darezenstrat and Rachel and some cousins at another site, where they toiled in a series of cellars or tunnels variously sorting potatoes and splicing electric wires. By late spring, the prisoners could see their captors were anxious. Some guards fled. Then, on May 8 1945, Mania, Bluma and the others were marched into the woods by the remaining guards. When a limousine approached, the sisters feared the worst. “We thought it was the SS,” Bluma said, “but it was the Red Cross. They said to the Germans, Stay here. You lost the war. It’s over. The people are free.’ This was our liberation.” On the same day, Rachel and her group were liberated by the Russians.

The sisters, mere skeletons by then, were cared for by a combination of international aid workers and Czech nationals.

Against all odds, the sisters persevered the worst that, as Bluma puts it, “human done to human,” and have gone on to see many tomorrows. While their post-war life has been heaven-sent in comparison with the hell they survived, there have been many struggles. Soon after their liberation, Mania and Bluma went to Wolanow to salvage what they could from the family home, where they were rudely rebuffed by the Polish family occupying it. The sisters only retrieved a photo of their father before being driven off with threats and invectives. Mania and Bluma were reunited with Rachel, Carl and other relatives at a pair of displaced persons centers in Germany, namely, the city of Lanzburg and the former concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, which the British liberated. At these sites the extended family eked out a meager existence the next few years. “We didn’t have money or anything, but we were still happy. We were together…and we were free,” Rachel said.

During their limbo of a refugee existence, Carl, the oldest and most resourceful, “was like a father to us,” Rachel said. “We were very naive. We didn’t know from life. He took care of us. He protected us.” Carl, who long fancied Rachel, married his cousin in Germany, where their first child, Morris, was born. Mania and Bluma also met their mates in the DP camps. By 1949 the sisters secured papers to start anew — with Rachel, Carl, Bluma and Joe going to America and Mania and Zalman resettling in Israel. Their cousins scattered to the four winds. In 1958, Mania and her family rejoined her sisters in America.

Rachel credits then-Jewish Federation of Omaha executive director, Paul Veret, with helping her family get established in the community and Jewish social maven Sadie Newman with making them feel welcome here.

All three sisters feel blessed they overcame their shared tragedy and trauma to find a foothold in America, where they started from scratch to build bountiful lives for their families. Along with their husbands, fellow survivors like them, the women found business success, reared healthy children and became doting grandparents. For years, Rachel assisted her husband, Carl, who now suffers from dementia, in their own tailoring business. She still does fittings and alterations in their basement workshop. Mania and her late husband Zalman owned and operated the popular Friedman’s Bakery in Countryside Village. Bluma’s husband Joe, now retired, was the longtime owner of Ak-Sar-Ben TV before selling it in 2000.

The sisters are proud to have come so far from so little. “We had no language, no money, nothing, and look at what we accomplished,” Rachel said, motioning to her big, beautiful house. Toiling long hours beside their husbands to earn extra money, the women made sure their children had “everything they wanted,” Mania said. Working hard also helped ease the women’s heartache. “Being busy is a healing,” Rachel said. Even so, harsh memories linger — the bitter past a constant reminder of what they witnessed. “I hold it in my heart. I remember everything,” Mania said.

Forgotten and abandoned during the war, the sisters carried on when all hope seemed lost and realized what once seemed impossible — a life free of fear and want. “I didn’t have anything but a dream and my dream came true,” Bluma said. “Well, God had to give us something, too.”

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