with Charlene Shiff
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Life in Shadows: Hidden Children and the Holocaust- Stories of the Hidden »
Good afternoon and welcome to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. My name is Bill Benson and I am the host of the Museum’s public program, First Person. Thank you for joining us today. This is our tenth year of First Person. Our First Person today is Mrs. Charlene Schiff. We shall meet Mrs. Schiff shortly.
This 2009 season of First Person is made possible though the generosity of the Louis and Doris Smith Foundation, to whom we are grateful for again sponsoring First Person.
First Person is a series of weekly conversations with survivors of the Holocaust who share with us their first hand experiences as survivors during the Holocaust. Each First Person guest serves as a volunteer here at the Museum.
With few exceptions we will have a First Person each Wednesday through August the 26. We also will have First Person programs on Tuesdays through July. The Museum’s website at www.ushmm.org provides a list of the upcoming First Person guests.
This year we are offering a new feature associated with First Person. Excerpts from our conversations with survivors will be available as podcasts on the Museum’s website. Several are already posted on the website, and Charlene’s should be available within the next several weeks. The First Person podcasts join two other Museum podcast series: Voices on antisemitism and Voices on Genocide Prevention. The podcasts are also available though iTunes.
Charlene Schiff will share with us her first person account of her experience during the Holocaust, and as a survivor, for about forty minutes. We hope to follow that with some time for some questions and answers from you. Before you are introduced to Charlene, I have a couple of requests of you and a couple of announcements.
First, we ask that if it is at all possible, please stay seated throughout our one-hour program; that way we can minimize any disruptions for Charlene as she speaks. Second, if we do have a question and answer period and you have a question, please make your question as brief as you can. I will repeat the question so all in the room including Charlene can hear it, before she responds to your question.
If you have a cell phone or a pager that has not yet been turned off, we ask that you do that at this time. If you have passes to the Permanent Exhibition today, please know that they are good for the entire afternoon.
The Holocaust was the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. Jews were the primary victims; six million were murdered. Roma and Sinti, or Gypsies, people with mental and physical disabilities, and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic, or national reasons. Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, and political dissidents also suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi tyranny.
More than 60 years after the Holocaust, hatred, anti-Semitism, and genocide still threaten our world. The life stories of Holocaust survivors transcend the decades and remind us of the constant need to be vigilant citizens and to stop injustice, prejudice, and hatred wherever and whenever they occur.
What you are about to hear from Charlene Schiff is one individual’s account of the Holocaust. We have prepared a brief slide presentation to help with Charlene’s introduction. And we begin with the composite portrait of Charlene’s family: her mother, sister, and father. Charlene’s European name was Shulamit Perlmutter.
Charlene was born in Poland on December 16, 1929. The arrow on this map of Europe points to Poland. She was the youngest of two daughters born to a Jewish family, in the town of Horochow. This arrow points to the location of Horochow.
Charlene’s father was a professor of philosophy at the University of Lvov. Here we see a contemporary postcard of the University of Lvov. This is a picture of the market square in Horochow. Note the wooden synagogue in the background.
In September 1939 Germany invaded Poland, and three weeks later the Soviet Union occupied eastern Poland, where Charlene’s town was located. Under Soviet rule, Charlene’s life did not change a great deal. The most important change she remembered was having to speak Russian at school.
In 1941, however, Germany invaded the USSR, and set up a ghetto in Horochow. When they heard rumors that the ghetto was about to be destroyed, Charlene and her mother fled. They hid submerged in the waters of a nearby river all night as machine-gun fire rang out in the ghetto. For several days Charlene and her mother stayed in the water. Charlene then lost her mother, and unable to find her, Charlene spent the rest of the war living in the forests.
On June 25, 1948, Charlene arrived in the United States, having sailed on the Marine Flasher, seen in this photograph. And here we close with this 2006 photograph of Charlene standing in front of the steps to her elementary school in Horochow.
Charlene came to the United States in 1948. Later she would marry Ed Schiff, who was in the reserves but was called back to active duty and served in Germany. Once Charlene became a US citizen, she joined Ed in Germany. She was an army wife for twenty eight years. Ed, who retired as a colonel, was appointed as an honorary Brigadier General, and served as a military aid to Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, a role that he also held for the previous Virginia Governor, Mark Warner. I’m sorry to say that Ed passed away this past year.
Charlene lives in northern Virginia. She and Ed had one son, Steven, and two grandsons, ages seventeen and fifteen. Charlene has been speaking about her experience during the Holocaust since 1985. She speaks frequently to schools and universities such as American University and Georgetown University.
In April Charlene spent a memorable week in Alaska, speaking to high school students, civic and church groups, in two communities. At one high school, 500 of the 504 students showed up to hear Charlene speak.
Charlene is a contributor to the Museum’s publication, Echoes of Memory, which features writings by survivors who participate in the Museum’s writing class for survivors. Echoes of Memory is available in the Museum’s bookstore.
I know you’ll also be interested to know that until Ed passed away, Charlene and Ed had been visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital on a monthly basis for three years, something that Charlene hopes to resume doing.
And with that I’d like to ask you to join me in welcoming our First Person, Mrs. Charlene Schiff.
Hello everybody, and Charlene, thank you so much for being willing to be our First Person today, and I know we have so much to cover so let’s begin. And why don’t we start, Charlene, with you telling us about your early life, living in a small town in Poland, your first ten years before Germany invaded Poland. Tell us a little bit about what your family, your community, and your own life was like in those years before the war began.
irst I want to thank everyone for coming here, and for your interest in what happened during World War II. My life before the war was very, very normal. I could even call it idyllic. I had one older sister who was a musical prodigy. She played the piano, she played the violin exquisitely well. I was a young girl, five years younger than my sister, and I had a very easy and very normal background. My parents were wonderful and they devoted much time to bringing us up in the right way and instilling wonderful ways of how to deal with life. All this changed when the war started.
I also want to say at this point, that I feel, as a survivor, it is my obligation, I have a mandate, a duty, to bear witness. I feel, I survived, and I ask myself the reason I survived, and I have never come up with a real, good answer, but I do know I must bear witness and I must honor the memory of the millions, six million Jews and five million others, who perished during World War II. Their memory must never be forgotten. And I feel that I appeal mostly to our young people because they are our future and our dearest treasure.
Charlene you’ve described those early years, in fact, as somewhat idyllic.
When the Russians came and you were under Russian domination, you said not a whole lot changed for you. But tell us just a little bit about what life was like under the Russians for the period they were there.
Well I was a child and at that time, I did not realize. In retrospect I know there were many, many changes at that time. But my concentration and my interest was just about myself, in a way it was selfish, and all I remember that in my case, the only change that took place at that time was the fact that the Polish language was no more. I mean the official language became Russian instead of Polish.
But that did not bother me, or didn’t bother most of the people there, because in our area the borders changed so often that most people were bi- or tri-lingual, out of necessity. And so Russian was not a difficult language for us, and most of us knew the language. And that is what I remember when the Soviets came in.
Charlene, your father was a very prominent professor. Was he able to continue to work under the Russians?
Yes, he did continue to work at the University. I don’t know under what circumstances and I don’t know what kind of educational changes took place. But he still kept his position at the University. And I don’t know how to compare it, but in a way it was rather unusual that a Jewish professor had what you call here, tenure. My father was one of the very few Jewish professors who had a full professorship at the University of Lvov. It was called Kazimierza Wielkiego, Uniwersytet. Now, when the Russians came in, it became, they changed the name, but curiously everything else remained the same.
Charlene, when the Germans turned on the Russians and attacked your part of Poland, your family’s life then changed immediately. Tell us what happened when the Germans took control of your community.
Well when the Germans broke their agreement with the Soviets, our town became occupied by the Germans in a matter of days. I remember long columns of foot soldiers, artillery, and tanks, going through the main street of our town. It seems very odd in a way, but the people with whom we lived in peace and harmony before the war, because, I forgot to tell before, but it seemed that our community got along, the Christians and the Jews, got along famously before the war. We all did live and we all worked together.
Just to give you an example, for instance, my mother and a group of her friends organized summer camps for poor children. There were summer camps for Jewish children; they were separate because they required different dietary laws—you know, kashrut, where you don’t mix milk with meat. But then there were also these camps for Christian children, and they were basically the same as the Jewish children’s camps, but because of the dietary laws they were separate.
And you see these were Jewish ladies who organized these camps. And everything that we did, or the people did in our community, was blended together. And this way we lived in harmony. And I had Jewish friends and I had Christian friends and we played together and there was no difference.
Unfortunately, when the Germans came in, it seemed like overnight our neighbors and our friends with whom we lived in peace and harmony, they became our enemies, overnight. And this is a very strange and I cannot explain why it happened, but this is what happened.
Charlene when the Germans took control, your father was immediately somebody they wanted to target and he attempted to escape, didn’t he?
Yes, but I must also tell that at that time, when the Germans came in, their first thing was to round up and take away all the Jewish leaders. Our town had approximately five thousand Jewish people, and when they came in, the Germans came in, they came with a list of all the Jewish leaders. They rounded up three hundred Jewish leaders, my father among them, and the strange thing is that the list with names was provided by our former friends and neighbors. The same people who were our friends until the Germans entered.
My father was a very formal man, and when they surrounded the house and they came in to take him away he was in his shirtsleeves, and he wanted to put on his suit jacket, but they would not allow him even to do that. And we never really even said goodbye. But I will never forget my father’s look in his eyes. It was love and it was, in a way, resignation.
That’s the last time I saw my father.
Charlene if you don’t mind sharing this with us, tell us what you know about what happened to your father.
Well there are two versions, and I don’t know which one is the right one. One of them is that my father ended up in Dachau concentration camp, that’s in Germany, and that’s where he perished. The other version is that the three hundred Jewish leaders were led outside of my little town, they were ordered to dig a mass grave, and then they were ordered to disrobe, and they were murdered the very same day.
I don’t know which is the right story, but it really doesn’t matter. There was nothing. Most people, when they lose a loved one, they have a gravesite to go and to be celebrating or memorializing their anniversaries. I don’t have any of that. I don’t know where any of my family perished and I don’t have a grave to go and pay my respects and to remember.
Charlene at that time you were still with your mother and your sister, and your mother was forced almost immediately by the Germans to do slave labor. Will you say something about that?
Well, this happened when the Germans had a real plan, a very effective plan, of how to deal with the Jewish “situation,” as they called it, and liquidation. They were determined to get rid of, and murder, all the Jews in Europe. So after they took away the leaders from our town, they organized what they called a ghetto.
The ghetto was a very small place in the poorest section of town where we were herded into, and the ghetto was completely enclosed: high fences, wooden fences were reinforced with barbed wire, and the place was completely enclosed. There were two gates guarded 24/7 and one needed a written permit to enter or exit the ghetto.
We were ordered to wear a yellow Star of David on the front and on the back of our clothing. Everyone 14 years or older was forced to slave labor. My mother who was also a teacher by profession was forced to dig ditches and fix roads, and often the people who were working were beaten and they would come home black and blue from these beatings that occurred during work. Everyone who worked received a small food ration. Children like myself didn’t receive any food at all, and my mother and my sister had to share with me what little food they received.
When the ghetto was organized there was also a lot of commotion, things were going on for a while where one could do what one needed, and so I must say proudly that twenty of the young people, my own age and a little bit older, decided to dig—we called it euphemistically, “a tunnel.” It was actually a hole that went under the fence of the ghetto, outside. Outside the ghetto we located a dilapidated kiosk, and that kiosk didn’t even have a roof, a kiosk where they used to sell magazines and newspapers.
A little stall, or stand.
Yes. And there, we made our exit from the tunnel. And this way, the young people, myself included, we took turns to get out of the ghetto, trying for money or for jewelry to get some food to bring back to our families in the ghetto. If one was caught outside the ghetto without a permit, a written permit, the guards had orders to kill.
And you got caught.
Yes, one time it was my turn to get out of the ghetto, and I did, via the tunnel, the hole. And I was very lucky to buy two eggs for a small gold and ruby ring, my mother’s. And I was nonchalantly trying to walk back to the kiosk where there was the entrance to get back to the ghetto. I remember I was wearing, it was summer and I was wearing a dress with puff sleeves, and I put the eggs, each egg in a puff. And this way I thought nobody would bother me.
However, I was caught by the guard, by one of the guards, Ukrainian guards, and he searched me, he found the eggs, he dropped them on the sidewalk and rubbed my face in them until it was bleeding profusely. But all the time he kept screaming, “Get back where you belong and never come out again.” He was one of the kindhearted and generous guards; he gave me back my life. My bloody face healed, and I had the gift, the precious gift, of life.
A few days after my experience, one of my dear friends, it was her time to go out via the tunnel and try to get some food for her family. And she was lucky to buy a half a loaf of bread—I don’t know if she had money or jewelry, whatever it was that she paid for it—and she was caught before she reached the entrance in the kiosk. And she was murdered right then and there. She was not quite eleven years old.
These kind of occurrences took place every day in the ghetto or right outside the ghetto. I could go on and tell you stories that occurred daily for weeks, but of course we don’t have time. It’s just an example of how sadistic, how mean, the Nazi regime was and their main goal was the “Final Solution,” they called it, meaning, getting rid of all the Jewish people.
Charlene, I would like it if you could tell us, though, about the time when, because your sister became ill and she could no longer do her slave labor work, that you in effect took her place. Tell us about that.
Well, my sister was very lucky and she landed a job in what they called the knitting factory, outside the ghetto. The knitting factory consisted of older girls who were knitting articles of clothing for the German soldiers on the front, and my sister was lucky to get a job there. The luck meant that she was in a warehouse, in a covered building, all the time, and she did not have to face the elements outside.
And she would come home and tell us how lucky she is because the guards who guarded this knitting factory were very kind and all they were concerned with is to read the roster, the names, in the morning, and as long as you said “present” they left you alone for the day and you were knitting in peace.
And so one day my sister came home from work and she was very, very ill. She had a high fever and she was sick to her stomach, just very ill. I remember my mother spent all that night applying raw slices of potato to her forehead. At that time there were no doctors in the ghetto anymore, there was no hospital, there was no clinic, and there were no pharmacies. So we had to rely on our own ways of how to cope with illness. And they, I guess, said that raw slices of potato take away the temperature, the fever. My mother applied these slices of potato to my sister’s forehead all night long.
I went to sleep, but she stayed up all night, and in the morning it was time to go to work, and my sister still was not well enough to go to work. And if she didn’t go to work, that meant that we would lose the food ration for that day, and that was very, very critical for us. Food was one of the most important things for us to survive.
So, even though I was five years younger than my sister, I suggested to my mom to allow me to go and take my sister’s place for that one day. And I, I guess, I was persuasive enough that my mother allowed me to join the older girls that morning and to take my sister’s place. And so we marched to the warehouse, the knitting factory, which was located outside the ghetto. Most of these workshops were outside the ghetto. There the oldest girls showed me where my sister’s place was. I took her place and I picked up the two needles and I started knitting. And then when the guard was reading the names, when he read my sister’s name I said, “Present,” and that was it.
Except, it was my exquisite bad timing. The Germans decided to have an inspection on that day. And all of a sudden there was a big commotion outside. A group of Germans came in and they positioned themselves all over the warehouse. One German decided to stand right behind me and he observed me for a little while. And then he started cursing and screaming, and yelling, “Schneller, schneller,” meaning for me to knit faster. And the more he yelled, the worse I was knitting. I wished I could disappear, but of course I didn’t.
And then, after a short while more, he jumped in front of my face. I will never forget this ugly face; he was red as a beet, and there was foam coming out of his mouth. And he kept cursing and yelling and spitting right into my face. He observed me for a little longer and then he pulled the two knitting needles out of my hands and stuck one of them in my right forefinger. I passed out, and that’s all I remember.
Later, the older girls apparently took care of me for the rest of the day and obviously very sadly, I did not get the food ration that day. My finger became infected; there were no antibiotics or anything, and consequently I lost the tip of my right forefinger. I was told in retrospect that I was lucky that this German did not kill me.
Again, this is an instance where I could go on and tell you many, many more stories in the same vein, but we don’t have the time. But this is the sadism and the meanness and the ugliness of what was transpiring, and how we were treated, like sub-humans, not like human beings, in the ghetto.
Charlene, eventually the three of you would be forced to move into another ghetto, and when that happened, that was the time, I believe, when your mom decided she needs to plan a way to escape and to get out of there. Tell us about that other ghetto and the plans your mother made and what happened from there.
Well after a while the population dwindled considerably. There was one other thing that the Germans did, and that was, at least once a week or even more often, several covered trucks would come into the ghetto, and the Germans would randomly grab people and put them in the truck, never to be heard or seen again. These actions were called łapanka and that could occur any time of day or night. Sometimes they would come in the middle of the night and go into houses and grab people out of their beds while they were sleeping. And of course that also gave us a very uncertain feeling because one never knew if any members of our families would be there tomorrow.
When the rumors started, we didn’t have newspapers, we didn’t have telephones, we didn’t have any way to communicate with the outside world. But everything that was happening was with rumors, rumors. So when the rumors started circulating that there will be the liquidation of the ghetto—the liquidation of the ghetto meant that the Germans would come in and they would murder all the Jews. My mother and many other people in the ghetto tried desperately to find a way of hiding.
And my mother, who was working outside the ghetto, obviously, she tried to find a farmer who would hide the three of us: my sister, my mother, and me. But she couldn’t get one farmer, and she did eventually find two farmers: one was willing to hide one person, and the other one was willing to hide two. And now my mother had to decide how to divide our little family. In her infinite wisdom, she came up with a solution. My sister, who was five years older than I, would go to the place where the farmer was willing to hide one person, and Mother and I would go to the other place when the time was right.
One day, in 1942, I guess it was early summer, I don’t remember dates, but I remember we got up and I said goodbye to my terrific big sister. She was to go that day right from work to the place that my mother secured for her. Somehow we would keep in touch while in hiding; how, I have no idea. That was my mother’s job. And so, my sister left, and we didn’t hear anything for two or three days, and that meant that everything went according to plan, because otherwise we would have heard something.
BILL BENSON: Charlene do you mind if I just step in for just a minute? By this time you had been forced into another ghetto, and this one had a river on one side of it.
CHARLENE SCHIFF: That’s right. Actually I should have said that, that this was the second ghetto. It was much smaller than the first one. And three sides were again, I mean they build high wooden fences reinforced with barbed wire. But the fourth side was a natural barrier, our river, Bezemiena it was named. And that river separated our town from a village nearby.
And so, when my sister left, to go to the farmer, that was from the second ghetto. Now when we didn’t hear for a few days anything, that meant that she arrived in good shape and everything was going according to plan, my mother came home from work and she told me to put on my best clothes and shoes and to take an extra set with me and that we would leave the ghetto that evening.
When it got real dark, and it was a very dark night, Mother and I left our room and we ended up in the river. We were planning to cross the river in order to go the farmer who was willing to hide Mother and me. But shots rang out in the middle of the night and we couldn’t move. We stayed in that river right, well in the river, and I remember the water reached my chin, and I couldn’t even crouch because I would drown. And so when the shots rang out and we couldn’t move, my mother tried to calm and to tell me to be quiet and we will probably be able to leave early in the morning.
But that did not happen. All of a sudden the shots were more regular now, and in the morning many other people in the ghetto tried to escape via the river; that was the only way to leave the ghetto without having a written permit. We spent several days, I don’t remember exactly if it was four or five days and nights in the river, and we could not cross in order to get to the farmer’s place. And during that time I would doze intermittently. My mother could crouch because she was taller but I couldn’t because if I did I would drown, so I had to sleep standing up and my mother would support me with her hand on my back.
I was dozing one time and when I woke up my mother was gone. I felt like screaming but I knew I had to keep quiet and I was looking all around and my mother wasn’t there. When night fell it seemed everything became quiet. I think the Germans did their job. The ghetto was gone. The screams that were coming for days, the fire and smoke, and children crying, all that came to a stillness that was overwhelmingly terrorizing me and yet I knew I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t cry, I had to be quiet.
But that night, when everything became quiet, I made my way to the farmer’s place. I knew where that farmer lived because before the war we used to buy dairy products from him, and one of his daughters actually attended the same school as I did. And so when I came—it took me almost all night to cross the river and to make my way to the farmer’s place—when I arrived there, the farmer wouldn’t even allow me to go into his house. He motioned me to go into the barn, and there he announced he didn’t see my mother. My mother wasn’t there. I had hoped that my mother would be there. And furthermore he said I could stay the day, but when it gets dark, I better leave. If I don’t leave, he would take me to the authorities which meant a certain death for me. I tried to plead with him to allow me to stay one more day so I could gather my thoughts and have some plans, what to do, but he wouldn’t listen to me.
As he walked out of the barn, I looked and I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was wearing coveralls and there was my father’s gold pocket watch and chain.
He walked out and left me in the barn. Pretty soon his wife came in and gave me a piece of bread and an apple, and she told me her husband meant business and I should leave if I wanted to live. And so that night I left the farmer’s place without any way and any thought of what I would do. But that is really when my odyssey starts.
I lived like an animal, going from forest to forest, in search of my mother. I could not allow myself to think that I would never find my mother. I had to find my mother. Where was I going to go, what was I going to eat, who would take care of me?
I went from forest to forest which in that area of Poland abounds. There were forests all over the place, and I went from one forest to another. And for two and a half years and three horrible winters I lived like an animal in the forests. And I never found my mother.
I was trying to live with hope. I am an optimist and I think because of thinking that I would find my mother, I was able to survive. There were times when I didn’t find any food and it was cold beyond any, any imagination, and yet, the hope that I would find my mother made me go on. There were times where I started eating worms, insects, anything I could put into my mouth, just to survive.
Charlene, there were some times when you would encounter others, in the forest. Would you tell us about that, a little bit?
Well, Most of the time I was all alone, but in the very beginning, the first two months, I did meet other survivors who escaped the ghettos before the liquidation similarly to what I went through. One incident is riveted in my mind because it did involve six other people.
We met right on the outside of a forest. It was in broad daylight. We sat around and tried to compare notes: where to get food, where to hide, and information about other survivors. But suddenly we were spotted by a group of children from a neighboring village. These children were just so excited that they found Jews, and they yelled with glee, “Jews!” and ran back to the village to report to their parents. There was a small reward, a monetary reward, for people to report Jews. And so we had to hide. But this forest had very sparse underbrush, and if there was very little underbrush it was very difficult to hide.
And so we ran into the fields. It was harvest time and there were huge haystacks around. The haystacks there were as long as barns, narrow and long. And for some reason all seven of us hid in one haystack. Why we all ran into one haystack, I cannot explain. When the villagers and the kids came back, looking for us, it wasn’t very hard for them to zero in on that one haystack. They came with pitchforks, and kept stabbing the haystack, back and forth. They made a game of it. They were singing and joking among themselves, and really enjoying themselves.
I remember hearing screams from the haystack and I also remember that I tried desperately not to sneeze or cough because that would give away my place in the haystack. It was very difficult not to sneeze or cough because the hay is full of dust and it chokes you and it makes you sneeze and cough. But I kept from doing that for hours it seems like.
When everything became quiet, I waited for a while until it was completely dark, and I made my way out of the haystack. To my horror, I saw six bodies, stripped of their clothing, lined up in a neat row. All of them were killed except me.
I didn’t even know the names of these people whom I met that afternoon. The only name I knew was, there was a little boy, strapped to his mother’s chest with a shawl, and he was sucking his mother’s thumb when I joined the little group. I had two carrots in my bag, in my little potato sack, and I took out one carrot and I gave it to the mother and she promptly stuck it in the baby’s mouth to suck on.
When I came out, the baby was dead, on the mother’s chest, and they stuck the carrot into his mouth. His name was Buzio; his is the only name I knew.
Charlene, we unfortunately don’t have the time to begin to talk in depth about a two-year period in your life where you entered the woods not yet a teenager and when you left the forest you were a fourteen year old. Tell us how you were able to leave the forests and how you were found and what happened to you. Barely alive, you were discovered; tell us what happened.
In the forests, wherever I would go into a forest, I would dig a little grave, and camouflage it on top, and that’s where I would spend the days. And at night I would go out in search of food. Everything and everyone was my enemy. And actually in the forests nothing harmed me and nobody—several times I had some encounters with the park people, what do you call them?
Yeah, the park rangers. I met several of them, and I was able to buy my life with coins and jewelry that my mother sewed in into my jacket before we left the ghetto
It was a terrible time because I lived like an animal. But again the animals never hurt me in the forests. My enemies were the dogs on the farms. When I tried to get into a farm to find some food or so, most of the time, I would wake the dogs. And the dogs were only more than eager to announce my presence by barking loudly, and at times by biting ferociously.
But somehow, I was always one step ahead of the death that was around me. I never knew what time of the year it was, or I knew when it was winter it was very cold and the snow was impossible, the snow a terrible enemy for me, because it gave away the footprints, gave away my location. And in the summer it was damp and it was dark. The sun never penetrated the forests. But there was no snow.
But it was at that time, 1944, and I was digging a little grave and went in there for the day, but I became very ill. I ate something that didn’t agree with me. Most of the things did not agree with me. But I was in my own filth; I couldn’t even lift my head to try to clean up my own filth. And I thought I was dying.
At that time the war was actually turning into our favor. The Soviet soldiers were pushing the Germans back west and as it happened they made a rest for the evening in the forest where I was dying. A group of soldiers was trying to find a place where to put their tents and they came to the camouflage on top of my little grave. And to their credit, and my very good luck, these soldiers investigated and they found me in my little grave, they cleaned me from my own filth, and took me with them in their, in their what they called “field hospital,” which was actually a tent.
I don’t remember any of this, but apparently I was with them for about a month or so until the Soviets came to a city by the name of Lutsk (Łuck) where they located a regular hospital where they put me. They left me there with a note pinned to my shirt, and I’m paraphrasing because I never saw the actual note, but it supposedly said, “This is a child of the forests. Treat her gently with great care.” And there they nursed me to reasonable good health.
At that time, the war was, for me, over. In Lutsk I found other survivors and I met the only other survivor from my hometown. And both of us went to my hometown in hopes that we would find some of our family members. Of course we did not. And at that time, sadly, Poland was the only country that was still murdering Jews after the war was over. And the older survivors decided that it was not safe for us to stay there. And so, in small groups, we tried to make our way outside of Poland. And of all the places, they decided that it was time to go to Germany.
Why Germany? Because Germany at that time was occupied, ruled, by the Soviet Union, the United States, France, and Great Britain, and that was a safe place for us to regroup. There, when we finally arrived in Germany, and it took months to get there, we didn’t have any money, we didn’t have any passports, and we had to do it all in a clandestine way. And there, the United Nations’ Rehabilitation and Relief Agency built what they called, “DP Camps”—Displaced Persons Camps. In these camps we found our new way of becoming humans again; we were treated with dignity and respect as every human should be.
I remember the first time I went to a DP Camp, I had to go through a disinfection. The disinfection was not a pleasant thing but it was for our own health, and I remember I was told to undress. It was in garden or something, you know outside of a building, and there was a person in a white uniform with a hose in her hand. And she started spraying me with a powder that was terribly—that smelled awful, and this was a disinfectant, and by the time I was covered from top to foot in that white powder, which made me sick to my stomach but I was cleansed from all the bugs, from all the lice, and after that I was told to go and take a shower.
The shower was cold water but I received a gift that I didn’t have for five years, a precious gift: a bar of soap, a toothbrush, some toothpaste, a small towel, a sheet, a small blanket, and a pillow with a pillow slip. After I cleaned myself and used the towel and toothbrush and toothpaste, I was given clean clothes and shoes and I was told to go to Barrack #2, bed 12. And that was my first return to humanity.
Charlene, thank you very much for trying to cover an extraordinary period of time that I think to all of us is just unimaginable, to even imagine what you’ve told us much less all that we’ve not heard. We have time for just a couple of questions from our audience.
Well, I have a statement first.
And we’ll do that when we get to the end.
We’ll close up with your statement. But let’s turn to our audience and see if they have a couple of questions before we turn back to you in a few minutes. Yes ma’am, right here.
The question is, during the time you were in the forest, what role did your faith play for you during that time?
I was brought up in the Jewish faith and I was not extremely observant but my mother and my father instilled in me one very simple thing that I try to live by even today. They said “treat everyone the way you want to be treated.” My faith diminished as time progressed in the forests. But, when I survived, and when I came to this country—three years, I had to wait three long years after the war in different DP camps—when I came here and I met a wonderful man who became my husband, and then I was blessed with a wonderful son, I returned to my faith, much more vigorously, and I’m believing much stronger than I did before the war.
I felt when I did lose my faith that I was as if swimming without an anchor, it was as if I were in an ocean without any purpose, and without any goal in life. Coming back to my faith, I realize that what happened to me and what happened to 11 million people was not because of God. It was because of evil people and this is why today I feel it’s my obligation, my duty, I have a mandate, to speak and to honor the memory of these 11 million people who perished before their time.
And this is something I must do. Not only not to forget and to honor their memory, but also to educate, especially our young people. They are you, you—I see so many beautiful young people in this audience—you are our dearest treasure and I hope, I hope with all my heart, that my generation and the generation before that didn’t do anything they were disappointing during the war. But you, you are our future and our hope. And I hope that you will teach the world how to live together in harmony and with respect to every human being. Human life is precious. Every human life is precious, and we must learn to respect that and to live in harmony.
I think that we’re going to hold on the questions any further because we want to hear some more from Charlene in just a moment, but Charlene will stay behind for a short while afterwards, after stepping down off the stage, so if any of you want to come and talk to her or ask her other questions, please feel free to do that.
I want to thank all of you for being here. Before I turn back to Charlene, just would like to remind you that we will have First Person programs each Wednesday until August 26, as well as on Tuesdays until the end of July.
Our next First Person program is therefore tomorrow, May 20, when our First Person will be Mr. Freddie Traum, who was born in Vienna, Austria. In early 1938, Hitler invaded Austria, which was then incorporated into Germany. In 1939, Mr. Traum’s parents sent Freddie and his sister Ruth on a kindertransport to England. After the war, Freddie and Ruth learned that their parents had perished in the Holocaust. Freddie would later join the British Army.
So we invite you to come back, if it’s possible, tomorrow, or at another time this year or look ahead to next year. I’d like to also remind you that excerpts from this conversation with Charlene will be available on the Museum’s website as well as on iTunes, as well as other survivors we’ve had on the program.
And with that I’d like to let you know that it’s our tradition at First Person that our First Person has the last word. And so with that I’d like to turn the program back over to Charlene to close out our program for today.
I want to bring to your attention two things. First, I want to tell you what this institution, this museum means to me and I think it should mean to you too. It is a memorial to millions who perished, a moral voice, an institution of higher learning. It stands as a powerful witness of genocide born of racial hatred. When the last survivor is no longer here, this institution will be a constant reminder, and warning, to those who tamper with human rights. It is a place of remembrance, reflection, and renewal. To me, it is a sacred place.
And now, I would also like to bring your attention to the fact that this weekend is Memorial Day weekend. I am very proud to be an American citizen, and I feel that we owe a debt of gratitude to all our men and women in uniform. They are the first in harm’s way. They protect our freedom, and they try to bring freedom and democracy to other parts of our globe. They are our heroes and we should tell them how much we appreciate what they are doing for our country.
Freedom is not free. I get up every day and I thank God for the freedom in which we live. This country is the best in which to live, and no matter how much we criticize and how much right now the economy is not very good, we live in the best country in the world, and we owe, again, we have to say thank you to all our military.
I am proud to be a military wife. I lost my dear husband nine months ago and I know that when he retired, he did devote all his time and efforts to spread and to bear witness and to try to teach our wonderful young people about democracy, about freedom, and how to be involved. The Holocaust happened mainly because of indifference of the outside world.
When I go to young people and students I tell them that we must fight today the four evil I’s that are still with us. These evil I’s are indifference, injustice, intolerance, and ignorance. Please, become involved. Please, try to get involved and teach the world what we need to do. We must learn to live together in peace and harmony. God bless you all, and thank you so much for your attention. I’ll be here to answer your questions.