“I survived the Holocaust, you know,” she says proudly. “That’s why I don’t like questions. The Germans asked so many questions.” Sonia was born in Zamość, a town in the province of Lubelskie. And she doesn’t like to talk about her past. The events are too painful for such a fragile woman. But like a little lamb sitting for her shearers, she tries to acquiesce—“We lived in Poland until Hitler came”—adding that it’s very important to remain positive.
Sonia can’t tell me what year she was born; “numbers are for telephones,” she says. But there is no doubt she was a child while Germany occupied Poland during WWII. It’s estimated that eleven million people were killed during the Holocaust. Six million of these were Jews. The Polish received particular disdain, as Hitler declared: “All Poles will disappear from the world . . . it is essential that the great German people should consider it as its major task to destroy all Poles.” And on August 22, 1939, an edict was made to invade Poland—to kill “without pity or mercy, all men, women, and children of Polish language.” Sonia is proof of his failure. Eighty-three years later, she is telling her story to me. “I was hidden by Polish people in Poland,” she screams. She made it through the Holocaust because of Polish bravery and because of a quality she recognizes as her own resilience.
“Have resilience and you will succeed,” she confidently says. “Ask God for the power to stand up on your own.”
It’s difficult for Sonia to stand independently nowadays. She walks with a cane, limping very slowly through the stacks of important things outlining her path. Sonia stands maybe four feet, eleven inches tall. She has dark-gray, curly hair that frizzes in the humidity, a wrinkled face with squinty eyes, and a protruding nose. Her lips are always fresh with pink lipstick.
As we transverse her past, Sonia transverses her home. She is upset about a prescription from the drugstore that’s been lost among the piles of her possessions. “I’m so upset until I find it,” she says. She brought the prescription home days ago, but now it is lost in the confusion of papers, bags, and leftover groceries dispersed throughout her kitchen. Museum may be a better descriptor for the old four-bedroom split-level Sonia lives in. It’s filled wall to wall with relics, and everything here seems to have weathered a difficult past. The air smells musty; the house is unkempt. The wallpaper is peeling off the walls. A bronze soldier in full armament greets you at the front door with a drawn sword. Perhaps he’s the guardian angel of the home, providing comfort and peace of mind. Sonia can surely use it. She walks along slowly, room to room, surrounded by the past, looking for that lost prescription: lost like the loved ones she cherished so much. “It will be a miracle if we find it,” she admits. “I can’t talk; I feel sick. Do you not understand? I lost my whole family.” Again she says: “Until I find that prescription, I’m sick.”
Sonia’s sickness is understandable. The Nazis used the term the Final Solution to refer to their plan to annihilate the Jewish people, and while she kept her own life, those close to her didn’t. Sonia doesn’t talk much about her parents. “Someone told me they were at the DP camp” (a temporary facility for displaced persons after WWII), but she says this with doubt. “You must think positive,” she says.
If Sonia’s parents made it to a DP camp, it wasn’t the one she arrived at after the war. In the camp, she studied to become a nurse. A dentist said he would train her to become a medical assistant while she studied nursing. “He said he would teach me,” she said. “I was very smart, good in math.” And while she was there, Sonia met her husband, Joseph.
Before life at the DP, Joseph went to an officer’s school. “He was allowed to go because his name didn’t sound Jewish,” she says. “He had a gorgeous uniform and he was so handsome,” she remembers with a smile. Joseph was a lieutenant. “His mother worried that something bad would happen to him.” She was right to be worried: Joseph was captured and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. “The best time of my life was when I got married,” she says. “I had a good husband.” The two were married at the DP camp. “I rented a dress from a German girl,” she adds.
Life in Poland as a displaced Jew may have meant you weren’t scared for your life, but living it was far from easy. So Joseph and Sonia escaped Poland by train. “A young man took me at night, and we bribed someone to take us on the train. The trains were inspected so you couldn’t talk much. I was seventeen, and my future husband was ten years older. They thought I was his daughter. They wanted to keep me because I had blonde hair (and was beautiful).” Sonia recounts her story like shuffling through the clutter in a closet. At one point she tells me, “On the train they said, ‘Be careful; don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish.’”
Today I am sitting in Sonia’s house asking questions she’d rather not answer. She wears black gloves while sitting in her little TV room without air-conditioning. “I don’t know why I’m wearing them,” she yells again. “I’m very upset today. I didn’t have a good day. Gloves you need when it gets cold outside. That’s why I have them—didn’t you know that?”
Her mind finds its way to nostalgia. “Everything in my life was good while my husband was alive. It’s very sad when a wife loses her husband. You’re always the third wheel,” she explains. Joseph made it out of the prisoner-of-war camp. Sonia and Joseph fled to America. “I lived in a kibbutz,” she says. They were very happy. Then that changed.
“The doctor gave my husband medicine that wasn’t good,” she says with a quiver in her voice, as if by saying it she could change what happened. “In Europe they discontinued this medicine. In the US, they do anything for a dollar.
“Why did God take away my husband for no reason? He went to shul every week. My son cried for the first time when he died.”
Loss seems to be Sonia’s surest companion; the house itself embodies its presence, dark and gloomy. But Sonia is determined to find something positive to say; she shows no use for endless negativity. She explains that when she was a little girl, she and her family were very religious. “I used to daven [pray],” she says. Her life as a child was “beautiful”; her family lived near a mountain and river where they’d go ice-skating in the winter. She goes on to describe herself now as a giver who knows how to make the best of every situation. She appreciates what she has because “the grass isn’t greener on the other side.” She spends time caring for the little birds outside. “Be positive because after the night comes the day; the sun is shining, the birds are singing.”
Sonia miraculously finds her prescription. More reason to believe that life is beautiful.
She rejoices by singing songs in language after language: Polish, Russian, German, Yiddish, Hebrew, and English. “They are all love songs,” she explains. “It means you fell in love a while ago; as time goes by, you only have good memories—memories of a love affair. The song says, ‘In a drawer there’s a flower; it’s old, but you have good memories.’”
Sonia’s love songs remind me of another romantic, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote love letters from a Nazi prison camp to his young fiancée, Maria, while imprisoned for speaking out against the evils of Hitler and his regime. He wrote to his beloved while in a concentration camp: “Wait with me, I beg you! Let me embrace you long and tenderly, let me kiss you and love you and stroke the sorrow from your brow.” Like words from God to his beloved child.
Sonia’s story is like a dried flower crushed in the pages of a book on the Holocaust tucked away in the drawer of a survivor: Memories of resilience. Memories of love.
Cover image by Evie S.