Miraculously, my mother did what almost no one else in her large family could: She survived WWII.
She arrived at New York’s Ellis Island in 1946, still a teenager. Orphaned, dispossessed of everything and knowing no English, she lived first in Toronto with her older sister, Jean, who’d left Poland a decade before the war when my mother was still an infant.
A seamstress in a factory, Jean became the devoted, sometimes nagging, older sister my mother had never known.
But my mother’s new life would be built on her own terms.
After six months, my mother returned to New York. She changed her name from Gisela to Janet, shared an apartment in the Bronx with three other women, took evening classes at City College and worked at Barton’s Candies.
Twenty-one years later, she was a sociologist with a Ph.D. from Cornell, married and the mother of five children.
‘About the war, she said nothing.’
Born Gisela Sperber in Kolomyja, Poland, my mother would, on rare occasions, share some unexpected tidbit about her childhood before the war. Her mother made chicken soup for the family’s Shabbat dinners. Kolomyja had a movie theater, a library and an ice cream shop and the children — my mother and her three siblings — liked going to these places. Summers, they swam in the Prut River and her two older brothers played soccer, their feet as deft as a magician’s hands. Her parents had high academic expectations, and my mother studied for months to earn the top marks required to be admitted to the gimnazjum. The children were loved, and they were cared for.
But about the war my mother said nothing. She did not want anyone’s pity; she did not want to be seen as a victim; and she did not want her losses to be the defining feature of her life. None of this was said aloud; these are inferences we made later.
And while my mother survived the war, her religious faith did not. About Judaism there was little talk in our house — neither for, nor against it. It was another silence.
Instead she poured herself into her family and her work. She taught at the University of Maryland and American University. Her specialties included labor relations, the Soviet Union and, late in her career, Germany’s wartime use of slave labor.
She was, perhaps, happiest when she was working. She had a carrel registered in her name at the Library of Congress where she often went to conduct research and to write. Her study at home was fortified by a perimeter of crowded bookshelves. On her desk, cursive notes filled stacks of yellow legal pads stained with teacup rings. I can hear her humming a bit of melody as she refills her tea cup in the kitchen before settling back into her study.
She cooked with indestructible cast iron skillets that looked like a blacksmith had forged them centuries ago. In the kitchen, WGMS piped out classical music — Chopin or Stravinsky or other classical artists that all sounded the same to my adolescent ears. If I was watching the Redskins in the den, she cheered them on, mostly because she knew it made me happy. “Did Mosely kick?” she would call from the kitchen. (Mark Mosely was a field goal kicker for the Redskins from 1974-1986.)
She made delicious paellas and quiches and Chinese pork chops and roaster chickens with quartered potatoes that browned in the pan right beside the bird. For dessert, she baked apple pies, apple strudels and raspberry linzer tortes, or sometimes brought out a long marzipan bar she’d purchased at Rodman’s.
Other foods — vestigial longings, perhaps, of the world my mother came from — held less appeal for my siblings and me: pickled herring, gefilte fish, chopped liver, matzo.
Her worries — fueled by her love for us — also seemed to have peculiarly European origins. Decades before worries over COVID or H1N1, she was possessed by fears of her children catching influenza, contracting lice or simply going out into the winter air with wet hair. And despite her breezy cosmopolitanism, she had what seemed to me an irrational fear of uniformed power. Long before the Black Lives Matter movement, she regarded the police warily. She warned us about acting “too familiar” with those in authority.
She hated bigots and chauvinists, and she didn’t care much for gun advocates either; she had a visceral disgust for those who would sell blood for profit, and a deep well of empathy for toilers of the underclass. If we set out the garbage cans with any loose, unbagged refuse, she would scold us for making the trash collector’s job harder than it already was.
Every year or so, my mother would have a bad nightmare. Sometimes, she would be the last in the house to awaken from it. We would clamber into the hall, squint-eyed and anxious, until a seam of light appeared under our parents’ bedroom door. You couldn’t help feeling that my mother was letting go of everything again. It eased my nerves to see my sister or brothers in the hall, though there was little to say and we always just went back to bed again. I slept fitfully after that because I wanted to be awake if it happened again, which it never did.
In my mid-20s I started to ask my mother how she survived the war. Reluctantly, she began to tell. If her answers to my questions were terse, sometimes grudging and almost always piecemeal, she must have also felt it was important that I know. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have told her youngest son of the events she had kept to herself for so long.
‘It will be OK. I’ll look after father, and Maks will look after me.’
The Germans invaded Kolomyja in June 1941. My mother was 14. Soon, the aktions began. German soldiers would appear at the doors of Jewish homes. Everyone would be ordered out, and the Germans would decide who would stay and who would be taken away. At first, people believed adult Jewish men were in the most immediate danger.
When German soldiers would bang on the door of her family’s house, her mother, Rachel Sperber (née Schutzman), hurried the men — my mother’s father, Joachim Sperber, and her two older teenaged brothers — into the attic to hide. For a time, this method worked. But, eventually, the Germans were not satisfied to leave empty-handed.
“Raus! Raus! Schnell! Schnell!”
In the street, my mother stood with her mother and a cousin, Klara, among some 30 neighbors, almost all women, who had been detained. A German soldier studied my mother, pointed his leather whip and asked her age.
“Ten,” her mother lied.
She clung to her mother as the Germans took her mother away.
“Go on, go on,” her mother said, ushering her back toward the house. “I’ll be back shortly.”
For many weeks, my mother and her younger sister, Donia, waited at the street corner believing that would be the day that their mother would come home. They shared a bedroom and, each evening, she and Donia bolstered one another with assurances that, although she’d not returned that day, tomorrow she surely would.
Later, the family learned that she was likely among a group of 500 shot in the Scheparowce Forest outside town.
A ghetto was established and conditions quickly got worse. There was little food. Some died of starvation; others of disease. In the Kolomyja ghetto, her oldest brother, Maks, worked to keep the family alive. He smuggled in food, and later he bribed a farmer outside of town to hide his siblings: my mother, Donia and her other brother, Munio. Because this farm was in a rural area, Maks believed his siblings might survive unnoticed there.
Except, after Maks managed to hire a horse and buggy driver to take his siblings to this farm, the farmer refused to take Donia, saying she was too young to work.
It was Donia, my mother’s 11-year-old sister, who soothed my mother’s tears: “It will be OK,” Donia told her. “I’ll look after father, and Maks will look after me.”
‘But They Came There Too’.
My mother and her brother, Munio, spent a month working on this farm where they were fed little and slept on a basement floor.
How did my mother narrate what happened next? “But they came there too.”
German soldiers brought her and Munio back to Kolomyja. They were jailed, and for several days fed almost nothing. During this time, my mother’s father, her brother, Maks and her sister, Donia, were still in the ghetto in Kolomyja. But, of course, she had no way of reaching them.
After four days, German soldiers used whips to herd her and Munio and hundreds of other Jewish townspeople first to the rail station and then on to a stifling train. Wooden boards had been nailed over windows or other openings. Packed into this hot, dark, overcrowded cattle car for days without water — going where, no one knew — some people went mad; others died.
A day or so into their journey, Munio pried free a board, creating a hole. He explained that jumping was their only hope and that she should follow him after he jumped.
Immediately, Munio’s leap was followed by the tut-tut-tut of rifle shots coming from the German guards riding the top of the train. The train never slowed.
Exhausted, frightened, thirsty, she did not follow Munio as he had instructed.
That was the last time my mother saw her brother, Munio Sperber.
‘I Just Didn’t Think I’d Make It’
Hours passed — another night, another morning, another afternoon. In this dim train she had the impression that the mass of people had thinned, but it only seemed that way because the dead — those who’d died from the heat, from asphyxiation or from the absence of drinking water—were on the floor.
The next day, at dusk, she jumped through the same hole Munio had made. She rolled away from the train tracks down a grassy embankment, lapping at the dew in the grass even as the German riflemen shot at her. They missed, and the train chugged on.
I have sometimes imagined this guard with the poor aim as a young soldier who secretly opposed genocide by firing wide; other times, this soldier is a regular Nazi, deranged by sadism, itching to burn Jews, who claws his face for his poor marksmanship.
Alone, hundreds of miles from home, my mother had no idea where to go, only that she needed water.
On she walked. She knocked on the door of a farmhouse where a girl about her age answered. My mother’s tattered clothes gave her away. The girl handed her one glass of water but refused her a second. The girl’s uncle would be back soon, she warned, and he would turn her over to the Germans.
My mother asked for directions to the nearest town and if there was a ghetto there.
She began to walk on the road. She saw large haystacks in a field, and she crawled inside one, eager to get away from the exposure of the open road. “I just didn’t think I’d make it,” she told me. “I thought I’d be shot on road.”
In the haystack she slept for the night.
She woke early and again began walking.
She came to a group of men working with shovels beside the road. They were Jewish men with Jewish stars on their armbands, and they understood at once where the disheveled girl had come from.
Until then, my mother had only heard rumors of death camps, without ever knowing if they were real. Now these Jewish laborers confirmed it and told her that the train from which she’d jumped was only 12 miles from Belzec. (Belzec was a German death camp where Nazis murdered over half a million people.)
One of these Jewish men took off his armband and wrapped it around her arm, which created the illusion that she’d been accounted for. If it was dangerous for my mother to move about without the armband, then it was also dangerous for the man, and yet he gave his to her.
Another Jewish laborer, who still had his armband, walked my mother to the next town, Rava Ruska.
‘I Think A Lot About My Kid Sister’
In the ghetto of Rava Ruska, she was brought to the Jewish Council. There it was decided in which residence’s basement she would be hidden.
She wrote her brother, Maks, back in Kolomyja and asked him to send someone for her.
Two weeks later, without warning, Pine Lubczynska, a Catholic friend of my mother’s family, traveled about 400 kilometers by train across Poland, appeared at this basement refuge and said, “Let’s go home, my dear.”
Pine Lubczynska, a woman of 40, a schoolteacher by profession, took my mother by train to Lvov where they spent the night in an apartment that Pine Lubczynska had a key to.
The next day Pine Lubczynska bought my mother some very good chocolates from a street vendor. Believing she would see her little sister, Donia, back in Kolomyja, my mother saved some chocolates for her.
On the train, a pair of Ukrainian women chatted amiably.
The day my mother and Pine Lubczynska got back to Kolomyja there was a clearing of the ghetto, an aktion. Hundreds — maybe thousands — of Jews were forced on to trains to Belzec that day. Her father and her siblings — Donia and Maks — were among them. (By this time, Germany had deported thousands of Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria to Kolomyja, swelling the town’s Jewish population from about 14,000 to 60,000. About 200 are estimated to have survived.)
“I think a lot about my kid sister,” my mother said. “I have no idea how things went for her. Was she alone or with my father? Did she hold his hand?”
Maks jumped from the train outside Kolomyja, made it back into town where he went immediately to the Lubczynskas’.
Briefly, my mother and her oldest brother, Maks, were reunited.
The Lubczynska family kept my mother and Maks for 10 days. But there were hard decisions to make. If the Lubczynskas had been found out, they “would have been shot the same as Jews.”
My mother and Maks would not be able to stay.
With her blond hair and blue eyes, my mother did not look Jewish. Pine Lubczynska believed she could pass as a Polish Catholic, something her brother, Maks, could not do. (Circumcision made it nearly impossible for Jewish men or boys to conceal their identities.) During the 10 or so days the Lubczynskas hid them, Pine Lubczynska tutored my mother in the catechisms and other Catholic traditions.
Pine Lubczynska also gave my mother a report card with a Polish Catholic name, Janina Bielecka. It wasn’t much; it was also everything.
‘She Felt Very Lucky’
A plan was devised in which Pine Lubczynska would take my mother by train from Kolomyja to Lvov, where Pine Lubczynska could procure other false papers, such as a birth certificate and a baptismal certificate.
Pine Lubczynska believed these papers would allow my mother to get into a German forced labor camp, as a Polish Catholic.
On the train my mother and Pine Lubczynska sat near each other, but not together. They pretended not to know one another. Soon my mother would have to be on her own, and Pine Lubczynska believed that it was important for my mother to get accustomed to her new identity.
Two hours into their trip, the train was stopped in Stanisławów. German soldiers boarded. Gentiles unable to prove that they were gainfully employed were ordered off the train. Many of these people would become prisoners, forced to work in labor camps for the benefit of the German war campaign.
My mother and Pine Lubczynska had understood this could happen. They knew German soldiers would periodically lock up theaters or block off streets looking for able gentiles they could conscript. (While Jews were gassed in concentration camps or shot and buried in mass graves, “an additional 2.5 million Poles went into forced labor camps in Germany,” according to the historian, Glenn E. Curtis) My mother and Pine Lubczynska barely nodded to each other as my mother was removed from the train.
She was taken first to a hub camp in Lvov where laborers were divided and assigned to various camps. My mother was transported to Arnstadt, Germany and imprisoned in the forced labor camp there.
She felt very lucky. “All I had was that stupid report card,” she said. If she’d tried to volunteer for forced labor with nothing but that report card, it likely would not have worked. But because she remained quiet when the German soldiers ordered everyone without a legitimate job off the train, it looked less suspicious.
‘I Just Knew No One Was There’.
“The arrival in Germany was not auspicious. I had barely stepped into the building when I was recognized by a young woman. She was a Catholic neighbor from home. I was at a loss as to how to cope with this situation. But she reassured me quickly that she would not reveal my true identity,” my mother said.
In Arnstadt my mother lived and worked as Janina Bielecka, a Polish Catholic, and wore a patch with a “P” designating her as a Pole. She lived in constant fear of being found out. Rumors spread that Jews had infiltrated the camp; some prisoners were eager to denounce others as Jews.
She worked in a factory, assembling munitions on a conveyor belt. Sometimes, she dozed off and the belt would jam. Herr Fischer, the German guard, would yell, “Verfluchte Pole!” (Damn Pole!) and accuse her of sabotage. Many times, he threatened to turn her in. But he never did. On other occasions, Herr Fischer pushed books by the German poet Shiller on her.
Food was scarce in Arnstadt. The prisoners were given a weekly bread ration and fed powdered soup every day except Thursday when they got cabbage, potatoes and a meat cutlet of horse.
My mother wrote to the Lubczynskas and to her brother, Maks, to tell them where she was.
Maks had told her that he intended to cross the Hungarian border to fight with the resistance.
Later, she received a letter from Maks that came from a different Polish city, Katowice; she did not know why he was in Katowice.
That was her last communication with Maks Sperber.
There are other parts I could tell, but the most important is that my mother was able to live out the remaining years of the war in Arnstadt as Janina Bielecka.
On April 10, 1945, Arnstadt was liberated by American soldiers. She never forgot the goodwill of these young soldiers. Conversation wasn’t possible since she knew no English, but they smiled, gave her coffee and tried their best to communicate.
She did not want the first night of liberation to end. Even with the immense losses she’d endured, she was happy to be free, and so were the other prisoners. There had not been much food for several days because “they’d stopped feeding us.” On this first night, a Czech laborer from a nearby camp found tins of blood sausage, and my mother ate too much and became ill. Bloodwurst, they called this food.
I asked my mother if, once the war had ended, she wanted to go back to Kolomyja. She explained that after the war, travel in Europe was difficult. Roads and towns had been destroyed; train service was unreliable. But more than anything she said, “I just knew there was no one there.”
Not her brothers or her sister; not her mother or father; not her grandparents; not her uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews or cousins — most of whom had lived “within walking distance” of her house.
There is much that is missing. No doubt my mother left out the worst of it. (Historical accounts of what happened in Kolomyja and neighboring towns include not only the well-known, factory-scale murder of human beings, but also unimaginable acts of casual violence and killing carried out by both Germans and their Ukrainian henchmen.)
After the war, Poland’s borders were redrawn. A chunk of eastern Poland — including Kolomyja — became part of the Soviet Union. Some Poles were expelled. Towns and streets were renamed. Homes and other property changed hands. Ideologies shifted. People migrated as they worked to rebuild their lives.
Although my mother wrote Pine Lubczynska after the war, she never did connect with her. What became of Pine Lubczynska — the savior who risked her own life to save my mother’s — my mother never knew. And vice versa.
‘Her Memories Were Never Far Away’
When I was a little boy — before I knew how she’d survived — I used to tell myself that my mother’s war experiences took place in another world and resided in a past so distant from our lives in Maryland, a few blocks from the DC line, as to be inaccessible or irretrievable or perhaps altogether forgotten.
But I am 56 now, and of course I remember quite vividly much of my own childhood. Her memories of the war and the family she lost were never far away. She just pretended they were, for us or for herself or for both.
Despite all the trauma and sadness of my mother’s past, her default was optimism. Good news about one of her children — a stellar grade, a promising job offer, a promotion, an acceptance letter to a conference, a publication, a return from an overseas trip — was cause for a celebration and often warranted a cake, a special dinner out, maybe a drink and a toast.
Eight years ago, my mother left this world for the next. I was 48. She was 86 and by then quite diminished by Alzheimer’s. She was living at Hillwood then, a small assisted-living facility in Bethesda. In her last year, she stopped speaking English and reverted to Polish, a language she rarely used after the war and that we, her children, had no way of understanding. As it turned out, it didn’t matter all that much; she still recognized me and brightened when I walked in the living room and joined her on the couch. We didn’t need a lot of words to be glad to see one another.
If the facts of her illness, her steep decline, her advanced age — and mine — were supposed to have softened the blow of this loss, they did not. A day after her passing, numb with shock and grief, I told my oldest brother, Joe, “I’ve been afraid of this day my whole life.”
My mother was a powerful loving force and while the world still feels emptier without her, I also feel carried along, buoyed, by all of the love she poured into me.
As an adult, I called her every day from the cities I lived in: Boston and St. Louis, Berkeley and Baltimore. I think of her most days still, and talk aloud to her often, sometimes simply to hear myself say, “I love you, Ma.”
Adam Schwartz’s debut collection of stories, The Rest of the World, won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House 2020 prize for fiction. For 23 years he has taught high school in Baltimore. You can learn more about his work on his website.