BACK TO POLAND
Many children of survivors imagine what it would be like to visit the places where their parents endured the horrors of the Holocaust and to get a sense of what they experienced. For Phyllis Goldblatt, this type of trip became a reality.
When her son graduated law school, he requested a trip to the place where his grandmother had to run and hide and save herself. His grandmother -- Phyllis's mother Ruth -- opposed this trip at first, but eventually relented, and Phyllis and her mother accompanied their son on this momentous journey.
Pictured above is Phyllis's mother reuniting with a former neighbor who had hidden her between two planks of wood in a barn, saving her from the Nazis.
Phyllis's story follows:
In September 1939, when my mother was 14, the Nazis invaded Poland and began hunting down Jews. My mother's mother had been ill with pneumonia but because Jews were forbidden medical care, she passed away. When all Jews were ordered into the ghetto, my mother's father declared that he would not go along with that.
'We have to run and hide, and each go our own way,' he told his children, emphasizing that if they split up, there is a better chance of someone surviving.
Her brother was 16. He went into the woods to join the partisans. At that point, the partisans were not taking girls so Ruth could not accompany him.
Can you imagine a time like that, asking a teenage child or grandchild to find her own way in a world where they were hunted like animals? My mother stayed close to her home, hiding among the weeds near a river. She was hungry, scared, and lonely. She yearned for some human contact and thought she had found it when she heard sounds of a family hiding nearby. As she got closer to them, a child began to cry and she backed away. Shortly after that, she heard the sounds of boots, dogs, and a machete whipping the weeds. The next sound she heard were shots. The entire family was killed.
This episode was the first of a series of close calls that defined Ruth's survival. She decided to take a chance and went to the home of a Polish neighbor (pictured above) who had been friendly with her family. The neighbor gave her some food and agreed to hide her between planks of wood in her barn, where Ruth remained for about a year.
Apparently, after that time, rumors began circulating in the village that this family was hiding a Jew, and Nazis came to look for her. When they got to the barn, they used a pitchfork to stab the wood planks. Ruth was certain this was the end for her. However, her second close call occurred thanks to a cow, who, at the moment the Nazis were approaching the spot where she was hiding, lumbered over and lay down in front of the planks shielding her. The Nazis left.
This incident, however, frightened the family and they felt they could no longer hide her without jeopardizing their own safety. The woman did not simply throw her out -- she took her to a neighboring town where she knew a man who arranged fake IDs. Ruth received an ID with a new name and a new city of birth. She had to learn about the town as well as its neighbors and stores, in case she was ever questioned. In addition, she was now listed as a Catholic Pole and had to learn some of what Catholicism entailed.
Back in the woods, she tried to find the partisans but was unsuccessful. After a while hiding by day among the cornstalks, surviving on raw potatoes and parsnips, and walking at night, the fear and loneliness got to her and she drummed up the courage to approach a house, offering to do any kind of work for shelter and some food. The owners of the house took her in. She remained there for a few years.
Again, at some point, the owners told her that people have seen her and think she's a Jew. She denied it. They responded that they would call the Gestapo to find out the truth. If you are telling the truth, they told her, you have nothing to hide.
In the middle of the night, there was banging on the door and Ruth looked out and spotted the hated Gestapo uniforms. The men grabbed her and pulled her away from the house, roughing her up a little while the owners of the home watched, and then pulled her a distance away from the house.
Next came her third close call. "Don't be scared,' they said to her once they were out of sight of the house, 'we're not the Gestapo. We're the partisans.' Apparently, they found out the Gestapo was coming for her the following day; thus, they got there first to rescue her. They hid her among bales of hay on a wagon and drove the horse and wagon to another town around 20 km. away. They got her a new ID and found her a new job at another home, which was on a farm.
Once a week, a Gestapo officer came to the farm to make sure the farmers were turning over to the Nazis most of their crops. Ruth was now a pretty 17-year-old and this young officer flirted with her. Ruth ignored his advances. One day he began humming 'Hatikvah.' Terrified, Ruth did not react, too wary to fall for a possible trick. He never showed up again. Perhaps this was another close call - she would never know.
The family was nice. She had to attend church with them on Sundays and worried that she had to look as if she knew the prayers and the routine. One of her concerns was what she should say at confession, when it seemed to her that the world had so much more to confess.
She truly believed she was the only Jew left alive. One day, there was a knock at the door. When she opened it, she saw an old beggar standing there. As Ruth stared at this man's face, she realized she was looking into the face of her father. The woman of the house came to the door, asking what was going on. Her father began sobbing, saying he was homeless and would do any kind of work for some shelter and a bit of food. By sheer chance, he had wandered to this very house, 25 miles from his home. Ruth was so overcome with emotion that she ran to her room as her father sobbed.
When the woman of the house heard the old beggar's request, she offered him shelter in the barn with some bread every day. Father and daughter survived the rest of the war in that same house, never acknowledging each other for fear of discovery, hiding whatever emotions they were feeling.
After liberation, the family was shocked to learn that the two were father and daughter, and that they were Jewish. They insisted that of course it would not have made a difference to them and they would have still helped. But...who knows?
My mother and her father made their way to a United Nations refugee camp in Bamberg, Germany, where my mother and father met. They married there. My father had survived with his father, brother, and three sisters, while my mother had only her father. Her brother was never heard from again; attempts to find him or discover his fate were, tragically, unsuccessful.
I was born in that DP camp. When we immigrated to the United States, the entire family lived in one apartment in Newark, New Jersey. Between my family and their friends, I always heard horrific stories that occurred during the war. I was always a reader, and I was particularly drawn to stories and novels of the Holocaust. I suppose it was less painful to read about it than to listen to my family tell their stories.
Five years after we arrived in Newark, my entire family bought chicken farms in Vineland, New Jersey. Vineland was heavily populated with survivors, through the help of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and all of my friends there were children of survivors. Our parents all had accents, ate the same kinds of food, and lived similar lifestyles. Our parents' friends were all survivors, and their children were all my friends. To this day, my closest friends are 2G, although as children we did not realize the bond.
My parents were very open about their Holocaust experiences. As for myself, I had nightmares in which I inserted myself into some of their experiences. I always admired my parents' bravery during the war and those feelings never wavered. Because we were such a large community of survivors and 2Gs, my friends and I enjoyed a happy childhood.
As an adult, my background has influenced me greatly. Prior to COVID, I often spoke at Palm Beach County high schools, detailing my parents' travails during the Holocaust. I have also spoken at local libraries and at charity events. If you search my name on YouTube, you can hear me addressing a Hadassah group about my mother's life as well as a speech discussing my life growing up as a child of survivors.
In 1993, when my son graduated from law school, we all traveled to Poland, at his request. We visited concentration camps but also my mother's childhood home. The neighbor who had helped my mom escape was thrilled to see that she had survived and we all witnessed a touching reunion. When this woman showed us where she had hidden my mom, she put my son between those same beams in the barn. He could bear being there for no more than ten minutes.
This was the most awesome trip imaginable, full of incredible experiences, providing memories my children will never forget. I feel my children were fortunate to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust directly from my parents. My grandchildren too realize that they carry a huge responsibility.
In 1995, I took my mother to visit a friend of hers, also a survivor, who was suffering from late-stage Parkinson's. This woman had an aide who was from Poland. My mother immediately recognized her Galicia accent.
This aide, whose name was Wanda, told us that her father-in-law had helped Jews escape. We asked her for her father-in-law's name. When she uttered his name -- Vladik -- my mom froze. That was the man from the neighboring town who had made her her first false ID. Thus began a relationship between my family and Wanda. We were able to help bring her children to the United States and get them settled.
When my mom lay in the hospital in her final days, she took my hand and said, 'Please keep telling my story.' Especially today, when the world is full of the uneducated and the deniers, it is extremely important to me that I fulfill my mother's last wish. To all those less fortunate who did not survive, I would like to say that I may not know your names but I know your souls and you will not be forgotten.
Years later, when I saw my son argue a case in front of the United States Supreme Court, my heart was bursting with pride. My thoughts were also with my mom. All that she had endured and all the miracles that had occurred that saved her made that wonderful day possible.
Phyllis and her mother at the entrance to her mother's hometown in Poland.