Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Interview with a Woman Who Survived the Holocaust - My Mother

This is an interview with my 89 year old mother, Ida Stern (maiden name Nissenbaum), and it also includes information from a video taped interview about family and their experience from the Holocaust. My mother resides in West Palm Beach, Florida and though she has Alzheimer's, due to the great care of my sister she remains in her own home with daily care and visits from her three children- Toby the eldest daughter from NY, Jack the middle son from Oregon, and me, the youngest daughter from NY. My mother is an artist, though it was not her profession, and though this story is filled with sorrow, I've interspersed it with my mother's beautiful watercolors and pastels.


Please tell me about your family, Mom:

My great grandparents were religious Polish-born Jews. Israel Nissenbaum was a shammus, a caretaker (custodian) in a synagogue, and studied the Talmud. Tauba Greenberg ran a service for customers that brought her chickens; she slaughtered, plucked and dressed the chickens for a fee. The two were married by a Matchmaker and had nine children with all but one born in Poland. The children named here from eldest to youngest are Chiel (pronounced “heel”), Sarah, Beryss (prounounced “berish”) and my father, Fanny, Phillip, Abraham (Abe), Anna, Gussie and Jacques. Sometime before 1912, the family lived in Odessa, Russia where Abe was born. They immigrated back to Poland and in 1912 they immigrated to Antwerp, Belgium, and this is where I was born in 1922.

How was the family affected by first World War:

In 1914 when the Germans entered Belgium for World War I, the family immigrated to London. There the children either attended public schools or worked odd jobs. In 1917, the third eldest child, my father was inducted into the British armed forces to fight the Germans with a contingent sent to the Russian front. This was the beginning of a painful life for him (Grandpa as you called him). In Russia, he witnessed grave atrocities committed by both the white and red Russians. Indiscriminate slaughter took place and amidst the chaos he fled back to Poland. While Beryss was in Russia, his sister Fanny died in 1918 from Influenza when the epidemic took hold in London.

What was your mother's name, where was she from? 

In Poland, Beryss met Chaja Perla Chiosnowka, a Polish-born Jew, and they were married. Meanwhile, the rest of the family immigrated back to Poland after the armistice in 1918.

What was your father's profession? Did your mother work?

Three of the sons including my grandfather worked in the diamond trade. Beryss, my father, was a versteller; the versteller positions and sets the diamond on the sutter for the polisher. Chaja was a university student; she was considered very intelligent and may have become a professional. Tragically, two years after my mother’s birth in 1922, Chaja hemorrhaged to death from a miscarriage. My grandfather and mother moved several times after Chaja’s death. The rest of the family had immigrated back to Belgium and eventually my grandfather and mother also moved back there.

What happened to your grandparents?

Sometime before the beginning of World War II, Israel, my great grandfather, died a fairly young man from Leukemia. My great grandmother, Tauba lived with her daughter, Sarah, who had married Salomon Mitulitsky (nickname Mon). He was also employed in the diamond trade.

When were you first aware of the dangers from the second World War?

I remember a time as very tense with the family discussing and rediscussing what to do in the wake of the Germans entering Belgium. There were not many options, but were trying to decide whether to remain in Belgium or to go to France and how this could be done. Tauba, Sarah, and Salomon decided to remain in Belgium. Jacques who was a bachelor and worked in electronics also chose not to leave.

Where there other things that you remember about being Jewish?

Both the siblings and children of my great grandparents, Chiel and Anna had married outside of the religion. Chiel married a German Christian woman named Thea (last name unknown). Even though none of the children were religiously inclined, he was resented by the other brothers and sisters because he revealed the nature of this marriage to the mother, Tauba. Anna married Charles Gruss, a French officer and citizen, which she kept a secret from her mother. Abe had married Ida Chariton, a Belgium born woman of Polish parents. Even though Ida was born in Belgium she had never applied for Belgium citizenship. Beryss remarried a Czechoslovakian born non-Jew, Elizabeth Helma who was a practicing nurse. She was not, however, entitled to practice nursing in Belgium because she was a foreigner. Thinking it would be safer, the two brothers, Abe and Beryss, decided to move us to the south of France.

What happened to the rest of the family?

Those of the family that remained in Belgium, with the exception of Chiel, were deported in 1942. These family members, Tauba my grandmother, Sarah, Fanny, and Jacques, were never heard from again. Anna immigrated with her husband to Paris where she remained until her death in 1991. The youngest daughter, Gussie, married a German born Jew named Itchak Weiner. They immigrated to Israel before the War in the 1930’s. Phillip like Gussie also left Europe before the war, immigrating alone to the United States in 1920 and reuniting later with Albina (last name unknown) whom he had met in Belgium. They were later married in the United States.

What happened to you and your parents?

Not long after we arrived in France, my father, stepmother and I were forced into a detention camp in the south of France. Conditions were very bad; there was little to nothing to eat, beds were bare bunks, and Elizabeth, my stepmother, was pregnant. I cared for the children in this camp which allowed me the privilege of leaving the camp on occasion by obtaining a pass. After Elizabeth gave birth to a son, Leon, he was taken away; all babies and children were separated from their parents. Two weeks later Leon died. There was again much discussion on what to do or on what could be done mostly involving the possibility of my escape. There was a scheduled bus trip taking the children out of the camp with a priest. My grandfather convinced me to go and not return, to go into hiding, which I did. For the next several years, both Abe, my father's brother, and Ida his wife, and I were separately in hiding in France trying to obtain false identity papers. We  lived several places where we were temporarily helped or hidden. I found out later that shortly after my escape from the camp, my father and Elizabeth were deported. Elizabeth was never heard from again, but my father miraculously survived internment in many work camps.

After you were reunited with your father, what happened?

My father and I were reunited in Paris with Abe and Ida too. We all eventually immigrated to the United States. First I went to live with Phillip and Albina in Washington Heights, then Abe and Ida came and settled in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn and lastly my father. We settled in Jamaica, Queens. Ida’s sister who had not survived the war had bore two children in Belgium, a boy named Leon and a girl named Elvira. They also immigrated to the States and were raised by Ida and Abe. My father wrote about his experience in the camps and his story is published and archived in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.


Despite all of the hardships she's suffered, my mom still has a great sense of humor.

Thank you for sharing your story with me mom.  I love you !


It seems that were was no strong national identity afforded to my great grandparents and their children because of the anti-Semitic atmosphere of Europe and the severe effects of the wars and the Holocaust. Their frequent immigration suggests that no country could be legally and/or comfortably called home. None of the children remained religious, despite their stringent upbringing in the Jewish faith. The only exception was Gussie who immigrated to Israel. Out of the children that immigrated from Europe to both the U.S. and Israel the most children and grandchildren were produced who completed college educations and became professionals. The three brothers that immigrated to the U.S. all remained workers in the diamond industry and lived for the remainder of their lives in the New York metropolitan area and West Palm Beach, Florida. My Aunt Ida, who raised her sister's children is adult home in West Palm Beach too, and she has a boyfriend.

My personal note from this history is that I have a developed awareness of the ambiguities of organized religion and a strong passion against racism and crimes against humanity. How I consider my own identity culturally, ethnically, and religiously is mixed. Since I was not brought up within the Jewish faith and was raised in an almost all Protestant and Catholic suburban neighborhood on Long Island, I am not comfortable with the Jewish religion. I do feel a strong cultural affinity to those who are Jewish. To this day, when asked about my heritage, I unfailingly say that I’m Jewish. I grew up knowing more about Christianity than Judaism though. For a time when my children were young, I found a somewhat spiritual home within a Unitarian Universalism congregation. It represented the interfaith inclusiveness I desired and it was a way to find some family medium for me, my children and their father who is Catholic. Today, I find myself drawn to Buddhism. I unequivocally know that my beliefs have been formed in a powerful way from being the child of European Holocaust survivors and from growing up in New York Metropolitan United States among children and families whose Christian based traditions I was exposed.

I love Christmas and I appreciate the teachings of Christ, though nature is my higher power and I'm an American girl: it's only a real tree in my house for the holiday under which the presents are placed. But I am a Jew and I love the celebration of Passover, that of rejoicing the freedom of the slaves.


Thank you for reading. Peace out.

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