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Learning about the Holocaust

By Halina Yasharoff Peabody

It took many years before I learned about the enormity of the Holocaust, even though I had lived through it. I only knew my own story, which started when I was not yet seven years old. My first memory is losing my father when the war started in September 1939. The most prevalent feeling throughout my ordeal was fear, which increased as time went by and as I understood more clearly what was happening to us because we were Jews. My family was not observant, so my religion did not give me any comfort.

My mother was struggling to take care of my two-month-old sister and me. My father had escaped to Romania before the Russians occupied our part of Poland, but when he tried to return, he was caught and sentenced to 20 years of hard labor for being a “spy.” He was a dentist. The Russians threw us out of our house as “punishment” for being the family of a criminal.

When the Germans occupied the rest of Poland, we went back to our house only to be thrown out again after surviving two Aktions. It was the first Aktion that remains in my young memory so vividly. Under the guise of wrapping trees for the winter, 600 young people from our community were marched out of town and killed. Only one survived. He had been shot in the arm and dropped into the grave but did not die and managed to escape. He returned home and described what happened. I have never been able to erase this memory. A group of survivors from our town, including my sister and our children, went back in 2011 and placed a monument on this grave, which had remained unnamed until then because these kind of graves were not allowed to be marked.

What was left of the Jewish community in our small town was then thrown out to another town where we were joined by remnants of other Jews from the surrounding area. This then became a ghetto. My mother told me that there was no hope for us if we stayed there. She explained that she had bought papers from a Catholic priest with false names and religion, and we would take a chance and escape from the ghetto and go to another town where nobody knew us. She taught me my new name, the names of my grandparents, my place of birth, and gave me a very basic idea of how to behave in church.

That is how we survived the rest of the war with many close calls and miracles until the Russians occupied Poland once again and “saved” the few Jews who had managed to survive. My mother was able to locate my father who arranged to get us out of Poland and to settle in England. I spent a few years in Israel and came to the United States in 1968. Until I retired and started volunteering at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I rarely spoke or was asked about the Holocaust experience.

I learned some details about it from programs like The World at War and other documentaries, and the Eichmann trial in Israel, but it wasn’t until I started volunteering at the Museum and met other survivors and heard their stories that I realized the scale of the tragedy that the Holocaust represented. My mother is long gone, and after all these years I am still piecing together the whole story and learning how brave she was and how lucky my sister and I are to be here today. The Holocaust is with me always, and my hope is that our children and grandchildren will not ever have to live through such horrors as I did.

©2015, Halina Yasharoff Peabody. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.