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Charlene Schiff: A Daughter’s Separation from Her Mother

First Person Podcast Series

Charlene Schiff discusses her and her mother’s escape in 1942 from the Horochow ghetto in Poland. Soon after their escape, Charlene was separated from her mother. She spent the rest of the war looking for her mother and hiding for her life in the forests.



CHARLENE SCHIFF: 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.

NARRATOR: Over 60 years after the Holocaust, hatred, antisemitism, 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.

This podcast series presents excerpts of interviews with Holocaust survivors from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s public program First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors.

In today’s episode Charlene Schiff talks with host, Bill Benson, about escaping the Horochow ghetto in 1942 with her mother. Soon after they escaped, Charlene was separated from her mother.

CHARLENE SCHIFF: 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 finally 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.

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 on the, 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 me 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 for 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. 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?

NARRATOR: You have been listening to First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors, a podcast series of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Every Wednesday at 1 p.m. from March through August, Holocaust survivors share their stories during First Person programs held at the Museum in Washington, DC. We would appreciate your feedback on this series.