I rarely post anything that isn’t funny or about my writing process. Even more rare is anything to do with my childhood or parents who were Holocaust survivors. My dad died just over twelve years ago. My mom died two and a half years later. During my mother’s shiva, a seven-day mourning period, I began to consider who would tell my parents’ stories? Do people really want to know their stories? How should they be remembered? I was busy with my job and family and put those thoughts aside.
The children of Holocaust survivors don’t typically have conventional family life. When I was a child, I often experienced bad dreams where the Nazis came to take us away. I directly attribute those dreams to the stories my parents told us as children. The dreams became less frequent and pretty much ended as an adult. In the last year, those dreams have returned. Perhaps getting these stories out will help in that respect.
The memoir I plan to write will be my first attempt at non-fiction. Right now, I only have bits and pieces of things that were told to me as a child. The challenge will be putting those pieces together to create a coherent story. I will have to rely on my two siblings to fill in the gaps in my memory. This blog post is the start of that process. These are my parent’s pre-war and wartime stories.
My dad, Ela Oksenhender was born on November 25, 1912. His parents were Tamara and Joseph. His surname was shortened to Handler when he arrived in Canada. I was told that an immigration officer suggested the new Anglicized name to them.
He was born in the Wislica, a town in the Swietokrzskie Voivodeship area, Kielce district in southcentral Poland. He was raised in Bedzin, a town in the Zaglembie Dabrowskie area, also in Kielce district and just over 100 kilometres from what is now the Czech Republic. Prior to World War II, Bedzin had a population of 50,000 about half of the residents were Jewish. Dad was the second youngest of seven children. He had little education and worked to support the family at a young age.
In the mid-1930s he was married, and he and his wife, Esther had a daughter, Leah. The most common type of employment for Jews in Bedzin was as merchants. Dad sold poultry and eggs in a small shop in the Jewish section of town. World War II was triggered by the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. The German army entered Bedzin on September 5th and immediately burned down the Great Synagogue in the old part of town and massacred the Jewish population. Dad and his brother, Israel fled to the East and crossed into Russia. At the time, the Russian were allied with Nazi Germany and when they realized there would be no protection from the Nazis they returned to Poland. When they returned in April 1940, they were picked up by the Nazis. Because he was young. Dad was sent to a forced labour camp in Ottmuth, Poland where he worked in a local shoe factory. The Nazis operated hundreds of such camps that stretched across German-occupied Europe.
Prisoners were under fed and clothed as they were deemed expendable. The workday was long. Every day, dad was forced to walk seven kilometers to and from the workplace. He was not there long. In the summer of 1940, he was transferred to another forced labour camp in Rattwitz, Germany where he was assigned to carry bricks and cement blocks. He was transferred two months later to Markstadt, one of the larger forced labour camps in Germany with between 3,000 to 4,000 Jewish prisoners. Markstadt was located just outside Breslau, Germany and next to several factories where war materials were manufactured.
The camp was similar to a concentration camp, surrounded with barbed wire and long wooden barracks contained five rooms administered by a Kapos, a prisoner assigned to supervise their peers by the Nazis. The Kapos often beat their fellow prisoners with rubber truncheons. Accommodating 26-40 men, every room had bunk beds and one folded blanket per straw mattress. The toilet block contained a long plank of wood with about 30 holes in it above a deep trench. Several cold-water faucets lined the wall; there was no soap, towels, or toilet paper.
Dad worked each day at one of two Krupp artillery factories manufacturing gun parts. Twice a week he had a strip shorn on his head, from his forehead to the nape. No explanation was provided, and I suspect it was just another form of humiliation that prisoners had to endure. Dad was frequently beaten and at Markstadt, all his teeth were knocked out.
In late 1941, he was again transferred and this time to Fuenfteichen, which was one of many subcamps of the Gross-Rosen concentration camp and not far from Markstadt and still under construction. There he did similar work at a Krupp munition factory until May 1943 at which time he was transferred to Gross-Rosen itself. Life was extremely harsh at Gross-Rosen where prisoners were kept on starvation diets until they died. The diet consisted of stale bread and a soup that was mostly water. Simon Weisenthal was a survivor of the Gross-Rosen concentration camp.
At Gross-Rosen, he was assigned to be a Sonderkommando, a prisoner who loaded dead bodies into the crematoriums. Sonderkommandos were replaced on a regular basis and subsequently killed because the Nazis did not want any living witnesses to these atrocities. Dad was tipped off by a sympathetic guard when it came time to be replaced and hid among the dead bodies for a several days. Shortly after coming out of hiding, he was transferred once again to another concentration camp, Buchenwald near Weimar, Germany.
At Buchenwald, dad was taken each day at 4 am and taken by rail to Weimar to work in another munition factory. In December 1943 he was again transferred to his sixth camp for which I don’t have a name. In August 1944 he was transferred for the last time to Bisingen, a forced labour camp and subcamp of the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp network. The camp was in southwest Germany near the city of Konstanz. Dad did similar labour until liberated by French troops on April 20, 1945.
Once liberated, he made his way to Konstanz where he dealt in the black market until he moved on to Munich in 1946. In 1948,he immigrated to Israel shortly after the state was created by the United Nations. In addition to his wife and four-year old daughter, two siblings, and my grandparents were also killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Those who survived were in very poor health. My Uncle Moishe was transferred to Sweden for treatment. He immigrated to Canada in 1950. Another uncle, Israel remained in Germany where he underwent treatment for tuberculosis. He settled in Germany and immigrated to Canada in the 1960s. My Aunt Sara settled in Israel.
My mom, Shifra Zloczower was born on November 4, 1924 in the town of Suceava, situated in the Bukovina region in northeast Romania. The family name is said to have derived from Zloczow, a town in the Bukovina regioin. The 1930 census reported a population of 17,000 of which about 3,000 were Jews.
Mom was the youngest of eight children. She and her sister, Rachel were born to Zev and Tzipora. The older six children were born to Zev’s first wife who had passed away early 1920s. Before the start of World War II, several of mom’s siblings had moved away. Aunts Ruth and Mary had immigrated to the United States and settled in New York City. Uncles David and Joshua settled in Palestine in the 1930s.
Romanian history through the 19th and early 20th centuries was complicated. Following the outbreak of World War I, after declaring its neutrality in 1914, Romania fought on the side of the Allied Powers beginning in 1916. Afterwards Bukovina became part of the sovereign Kingdom of Romania. In June–August 1940, as a consequence of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, Nazi Germany carved up Romania and ceded parts of Bukovina to the Soviet Union. In November 1940, Romania signed the Tripartite Pact and, in June 1941 entered World War II on the Axis side, fighting against the Soviet Union until August 1944, when it joined the Allies.
Mom had just turned 16 when the war came to Romania. Although in 1940, the northern section of Bukovina fell under the control of Russia, Suceava in the south remained under Romanian administration. Still, there were numerous pogroms which was part of the arrangement between Hitler and the Romanian leader, Ion Antonescu. My grandfather was murdered in a pogrom around this time.
In 1941, after Axis forces invaded the Soviet Union during the Second World War, they defeated the Soviet troops in the region and occupied it. Romania controlled the entire region between Dniester and Southern Bug rivers (now part of Ukraine), including the city of Odessa as local capital, which was called Transnistria literally meaning “beyond the Dniester River.”
In September 1941, Antonescu decided that the Jews were an “enemy population,” and thus were to be deported to Transnistria, including mom and her family. Most were executed or died from other causes in ghettos and concentration camps administered by Romanian police. Altogether, approximately 150,000 people were sent to Transnistria. Many deportees died en route. Thousands were jammed into freight trains without food or water, causing many deaths. The Romanian guards accompanying the prisoners randomly shot at them, as well.
For the next three years, my mom, grandmother and Aunt Rachel lived in a ghetto in Transnistria with inadequate shelter and little food. Mom was billeted with a wealthier family and was treated as a servant. Typhus was rampant and killed my grandmother and other family members. Mom was fortunate to recover from typhus. They remained in Transnistria until 1944. Permission was finally granted to leave when the Soviet army began closing in on Transnistria. Mom and my Aunt Rachel returned home during this period. Their brother Srul resettled in Russia. He later became a refusenik, a Soviet Jews who were refused permission to emigrate to Israel. He was jailed in a Siberia gulag and persecuted for having asked. Srul was finally allowed to leave when the Soviet Union dissolved.
In 1946, mom and Rachel illegally immigrated to Palestine by ship. To appease the Arab population, the British restricted the number of Jewish immigrants allowed into Palestine and prevented ships from landing. Their ship was one of about 100 ships prior to and after the war that attempted to evade the British blockade. Their ship was intercepted by the British and everyone on board was interned at Atlit detainee camp. They were held there until May 1948, when Israel achieved independence.
Mom and dad met in Israel and were married on March 17, 1949. Despite wanting to return to normalcy, they would carry the burden of their experiences the rest of their lives.