October 16, 2021

Part 1: Courageous Rescues, Difficult Reunions: Heartbreaking Decisions by Parents during the Holocaust

By Joanna Beata Michlic

Editor’s  Note: This blog comes from a lecture delivered at the International Seminar, Holocaust Education in the 21st Century: International Perspective, in recognition of the 25th of Yad Layeled, Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, May 2, 2021. It will be serialized in four parts with parts one and two featured today. 

In her poem titled, “About My Father”, Irena Klepfisz, a poetess and Polish-Jewish child survivor, pays a tribute to her father Michal Klepfisz.  The father with whom she shared the same birthday, April 17, was a vital person in her rescue from the Warsaw ghetto: “He left me on the street to be picked up by the nuns from an orphanage. He watched me from a distant doorway”.  Irena was born in 1941, two years before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 19, 1943, the first major uprising against Nazi Germany in German-occupied Europe wherein her father, a leading activist of Bund and one of the key pillars of the Uprising was killed on April 20, 1943, the second day of fighting against the Germans. 

Parents as First Rescuers

As a social and cultural historian of the Holocaust studying closely Jewish child survivors’ early and late postwar testimonies along their parents’ letters written from within the Holocaust, I am compelled to re-evaluate the role of parents as the first critical rescuers of their children, responsible for executing major rescue steps leading to smuggling the children out of the ghettoes and organizing the shelters on the Aryan side that was forbidden to Jews. Historians, of course, are familiar with accounts of Jewish parents fighting for the survival of their children in the ghettos amid everyday hunger, multiple diseases and daily deportations.  This is how, for example, one of the mothers, Mrs. Majdanowska (Majdanowa) describes, in her early postwar testimony of December 12, 1946, her ordeal to keep her baby son safe and alive during the Great Deportation of the Warsaw Ghetto commencing on July 23, 1942 and ending on September 21, the same year.  

“I wish to describe some episodes from the life of my five-year-old son, but I am not sure where to begin.  By writing about them now, I go back to these terrible days, however it seems to me that these days were just an awful nightmare. When the first Deportation (Great Deportation) took place my boy was fifteen months old and we began to hide in cellars and various ‘holes.’  Hunger was terrible at the time because bread was not baked and food shops were closed. Still, no one thought about food, but only about finding a hiding place.  No one wanted to let me in anywhere with my boy because of his cry everybody might have been killed. On the whole, the situation of a mother with a child was pitiful then.  It happened to me on one occasion that someone wanted to suffocate my boy because he started to cry during the street blockade.  If at the time I have not acted as a lioness with a desperate look on my face they might have killed him.  They got afraid of me and left us in peace”.

In the autumn of 1942 in the full swing of the Nazi German master-minded Operation Reinhard, Jewish parents, who were still alive, engaged in desperate planning of their children’s relocation to the Aryan side. Some hoped for finding a safe haven for their children in the hands of Polish friends and acquaintances, whereas others could only be hopeful to find a refuge for their children amongst strangers, praying for the strangers’ mercy and sheer luck to be bestowed upon their children. Before the children departed the ghettos, the parents often would instruct them about their new Christian Polish identities they were about to assume. This urgent, life-saving lesson, taught in haste, was often the last time the parents and the children would see each other. Therefore, this moment remained fresh in children’s memories for a long time, and they were capable of recounting it in great detail after the war. For example, Irena Grundland recounts in her testimony of 1955 her last night with her beloved mother in the Warsaw ghetto: “The last night, before my departure from the ghetto, the whole family was awake. My mother was carefully preparing my clothes. She was asking me questions about Catholic catechism and examining my knowledge of all the daily Catholic prayers. She was hugging me and kissing me the entire night.” 

Only very few Jewish parents were lucky to survive with their children together in hiding or were hiding separately, but in the close vicinity to their children on the Aryan side.  Very few surviving Jewish parents and their surviving Jewish children were able to rebuild their family’s lives intact in the aftermath of the Second World War.  Some parents had high hopes that they would be reunited with their children after the Holocaust, while many others knew that they were facing an ultimate death and could only attempt to safeguard the physical survival of their children. In such cases, they hoped against hope that after the Holocaust their children would be united with and brought up by their surviving adult relatives in Poland or relatives abroad. This was their final will, articulated in their emotional letters written with pressing urgency. However, these parents’ wishes rarely came to fruition.  They ultimately lost control over their children’s future fate in the moment of separation from them in the ghettos, forced labor camps, or on the Aryan side. The moment of separation in the history of the Jewish family during the Holocaust is crucial for our understanding of the possibilities and limitations of the reconstruction of Jewish family after the Holocaust, and about the postwar fate and cultural identity of some child survivors. In this essay, I would like to discuss five different cases of child survivors to illustrate the variety of trajectories in the lives of Jewish children who were separated from their parents during the Holocaust. I will only focus on cases revealing complexities and impossibilities of a smooth reconstruction of a Jewish family after the war and the long shadow of the Holocaust cast over surviving Jewish families, manifested in the continuous presence of secrets and missing pieces of survival puzzle, and in the mechanism of suppressed Jewish identity.

Anna Ginsberg and Walenty Laxander

In the poignant letter of June 4, 1943, written in a small, forced labor camp in Czystyłów, near Tarnopol (Ternopil), in eastern Galicia, Szymon Ginsberg addresses his three siblings living in Haifa, then Palestine. He informs them about the birth of his daughter Anna, born on April 17, 1943 and about Anna’s rescuer, Mr. Walenty Laxander, a Pole of German origin, who with the help of a medical doctor Karol Pohoriles-Buczynski smuggled the baby girl out of the forced labor camp, 16 hours after her birth. Without disclosing Laxander’s name, in order to protect him and his daughter, Ginsberg tells his siblings in Haifa that a Polish engineer whom he calls an “angel in a human body” had saved his newborn baby girl. The baby girl was given the name of Gizela Anna Zofia Darmont and was baptized immediately in order to protect her.  Szymon Ginsberg hopes that his siblings would establish contact with his daughter’s benefactor. At the time of writing this poignant letter—his last will—Ginsberg was fully aware that he and his wife, Zofia Distelfeld whom he met sometimes in 1942 in the Czystyłów labor camp, were doomed to be murdered like the rest of their families. Ginsberg knew already then about the killings of his parents and other relatives by the Germans and suspected that the Jews of the entire Tarnopol region would soon be shipped to the Bełżec extermination center. With heavy heart, Ginsberg realized that he would never see his baby daughter again and his last wish was that his siblings in Haifa would take care and adopt the “poor baby I leave behind in this world” after the war:

“I beg you, as a man who has already crossed into the next world, I beg you from the depth of my parents’ heart and my own heart that you will carry out a search for my infant girl and that you will provide her with everything that I could not: that you will become her parents. I know that you will do that. I regret, and it pains me, that this is inevitable. The world is so large, there is so much space on earth, but there is no place for us. Our tragedy is even greater because we know that the world would be transformed and that the beastly hydra would be killed. However, we will perish before that.”

Mr. Laxander was the chief manager of the construction firm owned by the German Artur Walde, wherein Szymon Ginsberg was forced to work in Czystyłów, and that’s how they had met and got acquainted. In the aftermath of him smuggling the baby girl, Mr. Laxander also attempted to smuggle Szymon and his wife out of the forced labor camp Czystyłów, but his second rescue action ended in failure.  Someone denounced the hiding place of the young Jewish couple, and they had no choice but to return to the labor camp where they perished on July 2, 1943. Mr. Laxander was sent to prison for two years for assisting to rescue them. Nevertheless, before his imprisonment, he managed to place the baby girl in a nearby Christian orphanage run by nuns. Once released from prison, Laxander brought the baby girl with him to his family and in 1947 officially adopted her.  In her letter of July 22, 1994 addressed to the Righteous Among the Nations section at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, the daughter A. Z. (Anna Gizela Darmont-Laxander) recalls that on May 18, 1952 her adoptive father Mr. Laxander gave her his brief memoir in which he revealed for the first time the secrets of her personal history. On that day Anna celebrated an important Christian ceremony: she underwent the Catholic rite of First Holy Communion. Until then she had not been aware that Walenty Laxander was not her biological father and that she came from a different ethnic and religious background. 

Not only did Laxander present Anna with his brief memoir; he also gave her a very special gift, a farewell letter from Anna’s biological father Szymon Ginsberg dated May 4, 1943. In that letter addressed to the engineer Laxander, Szymon Ginsberg expresses his regret that he could not meet with Laxander again, and thank him for everything that he did for him and his wife, and he praises him as a noble human being filled with goodness.  

Studying Laxander’s brief memoir, one can detect the reasons why he decided to disclose the girl’s origins to the then nine-year-old Anna and to present her with her biological father’s farewell letter addressed to him. Strong Catholic faith, the importance of the Catholic rite of Holy Communion, and respect for Anna’s biological parents motivated him to do so.

“During such a festive day I give you the farewell letter of your father. Let this letter, a gift of great love bestowed upon you by your parents, be a reminder of God’s mercy. Let the letter lift your spirits during the challenging days of your life and let it be a reminder of the love of one’s neighbor.

What is also clear from his statement is that in 1952, Laxander had no doubt that it was God who intervened and made the rescue of Anna possible, and that it was not his intention to conceal from Anna information about her deceased biological parents but, on the contrary, to make sure that she knew about them and cherished their memories already at a preadolescent age.  

What one can infer from Anna’s letter of 1994 is that she considered Laxander a loving, dedicated, and deeply religious parent. However, there are many aspects of Anna’s personal postwar history that remain concealed and unclear, a situation not unusual in the postwar lives of some child Holocaust survivors.  From another letter deposited in the collection of the Central Committee of Polish Jews (CKŻP) one learns, as Laxander declares, that out of a moral obligation, he indeed contacted Ginsberg’s siblings in Haifa in the early postwar period. In fact, Walenty Laxander and a teenage Anna visited the relatives in Haifa in 1956. However, Anna did not remain with her biological aunts and uncle in Israel, but she returned with her beloved adopted father to Poland. Apparently, she was too emotionally attached to Mr. Laxander, his wife, and their daughter Stefania to make the life-changing decision to emigrate to Israel and start life anew in a completely different culture and social environment. In 2015, a male representative of the second generation of Anna’s family in Haifa contacted me after I had published the first article in which I had described Anna’s history and her rescuer. From his recollections filled in with sorrow and disappointment, I learned that the conversations between Mr. Laxander and Szymon Ginsberg’s siblings did not go well during Anna’s visit to Haifa and in the aftermath, links were cut off between Anna and her remaining biological family. Mr. Laxander passed away in 1961 and received the title of the Righteous Among Gentiles on September 2, 1996 thanks to the efforts of his adoptive daughter Anna, the child Holocaust survivor. 

Jola

In a documentary film, Wyrzutki (Castaways, 2013) directed by Sławomir Grünberg and Tomasz Wisniewski, we learn about Jola who today still lives in Łapy, a small town in north-eastern Poland where she was saved as a baby during the Holocaust. Jola was one of the so-called luggage children thrown out, by their desperate parents, from trains heading for Treblinka extermination center.  Elderly Polish witnesses remember that the baby girl was thrown out of “the death train,” laid for some time in a ditch near the railways. They also remember her crying. A local Polish Christian family took pity on her, took her in, and raised her as their own daughter.  Today, this child survivor is unable to speak about the past and her identity. 

Cases such as Anna’s and Jola’s show that the first rupture caused by the murder of biological parents was a decisive moment in shaping these child survivors’ future lives.  Children like these girls, cared for and loved by their rescuers-postwar adoptive parents, could not return and recreate their Jewish identity as they could not embark on a painful and scary journey taking them back to the Holocaust. They could not embrace Jewish identity and all the pains and fears associated with it. These children and their children would rather not touch upon the subject for a variety of psychological, social, and cultural reasons. They keep their “dark, painful secrets” to themselves. Some must be painfully aware that their social environment, including spouses and parents-in-law, might not be overjoyed with having discovered a Jew in their families.

Joanna Beata Michlic is a social and cultural historian, and founder, and former director of HBI’s Legacy Project: The Project on Families, Children, and the Holocaust at Brandeis University. She is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the University College London’s (UCL) Centre for the Study of Collective Violence, the Holocaust and Genocide, UCL Institute for Advanced Studies, and Research Fellow at Weiss-Livnat International Centre for Holocaust Research and Education, University of Haifa, June 2019 – May 2022. She is also a Research Associate at HBI, and a co-editor in Chief of Genealogy Journal. Her research focuses on social and cultural history of Poland and East European Jews, the Holocaust and its memory in Europe, East European Jewish childhood, rescue and rescuers of Jews in East-Central Europe, and antisemitism, racism, and nationalism in Europe. She is a recipient of many prestigious academic awards and fellowships, most recently Gerda Henkel Fellowship, 2017 – 2021.  

Sources:

1. Testimony of Mrs. Majdanowska (Majdanowa) in Polish, of 12 December 1946, File no. 301/5289, Archives of ZIH. 

2.Irena, Grundland, (born Morgensztern). CKŻP, File No. 301/ 5543, 4, Archives of ZIH.

3.Szymon Ginsberg to his relatives in Haifa, June 4, 1943, (Letter in Polish), file no. M31/7211, Archives of Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem.

4. A slightly different version of Laxander’s rescue mission of Anna is cited in Martin Gilbert, The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust (New York: Henry Holt, 2003), 46. Gilbert bases his description of Laxander’s rescue operation on the article by Mordecai Paldiel, “A Last Letter and a Precious ‘Bundle,’ ” Yad Vashem Quarterly Magazine 26 (Spring 2002).  

5. Anna Z. wrote the letter to provide evidence in support of awarding Walenty Laxander the title of Righteous Among the Nations; see the file of Waldemar (Walenty) Laxander, file no. M31/7211, Archives of Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem. 

6. Szymon Ginsberg to Walenty Laxander, May 4, 1943, file no. M31/7211, Archives of Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem. 

7. File no. M31/7211, Archives of Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem.

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