This is a true story.**
Whenever Yizkor (the Prayer for the Dead) was said, my mother would come back to our room and cry all day. My little hands would trace the paths of my Mommy’s tears.
I remember climbing on her bed and saying: Don’t cry Mommy. I will be your father and I will be your mother and I will be your sister and I will be your brothers.
Then I would wrap her tightly in my arms.
I don’t remember, of course, but my mother told me she wrapped me in blankets, just as tight as my hug, when I was a newborn. The tears she cried then were just as heartfelt. Her beautiful baby girl was a Jew into a country the Nazis had occupied.
I was born into a very large, very loving family, who had been respected for generations in the area where they lived (in Poland near the Ukraine). They knew and were known by their neighbors.
In 1939, war began. Nazis and Russians crossed the border, and in little over a month a defeated Poland was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union.
As you can imagine, things changed for Jews.
Curfews were instigated. Signs were posted in many places: No Jews or Dogs Allowed. Jews were forced to wear armbands – White with Blue Stars of David. No private businesses were allowed. Everything was nationalized. Young people couldn’t go to the synagogue, although older people could slip in.
Roving bands of Nazis began picking up men and boys in the streets just because they looked Jewish. People roamed the streets looking for their loved ones, who had supposedly been taken for work. They were nowhere to be found. They had been taken to the forest and they never came back.
Naturally, people were fearful, confused. They didn’t know what to do.
In early September 1942, when I was only 13 weeks old, my mother and father decided what they would do. They ran away to the forest.
It was cold. It was damp. There was no food. No water. There was no way to keep me warm. My mother had no milk to give me. I was her first child and she couldn’t feed me.
I became dangerously ill. And, of course, I cried.
Finally, my father said to my mother: We can be picked up at any time. Youngsters and collaborators are rounding up Jews to trade for a pound of sugar. We will not survive. She will not survive. And her cries endanger everybody here.
My mother said: I will take her and go back home. And whatever happens, happens.
But my father said: No. He had a plan.
He remembered a time many years before, when someone left a baby on a bench in front of my grandparents’ house with a note that said: I am a poor Polish woman who cannot take care of her child by herself. Please have compassion on her. Take care of my child. She will be good to you. Her name is Maria.
And my grandparents took that baby in.
Remembering this, he wanted to write a similar note and leave it with me near a Polish family’s house.
For three nights my mother refused. Finally she had to admit there was no other reasonable choice and, heartbroken, she agreed.
Father and his best friend, Yankel, went to an outlying farm and placed me outside on the steps.
They watched from a meadow. They knew it was too late to try another farmhouse. But my father wanted to go back anyway: What kind of an unnatural father am I to abandon my child like this? My first born?
Yankel held him back forcibly: No, you must have faith. This is the only way she will survive, and I am so sure that we will survive as well, that you must promise me, promise me that when she is wed, you will give me the honor of escorting her to the chuppah, the wedding canopy.
Yankel convinced him. As dawn was breaking, they ran back to where their wives were hiding in the forest. They still didn’t know what would happen to me.
The farmers finally heard me crying and brought me in. They unwrapped the blanket and took out the note. After reading it, they didn’t know what to do.
So they called the Town Elder.
My father and mother always said that my survival was due to a series of miracles. The first was that the town elder was out of town. His substitute was a man named Adam.
Adam came and he looked at me and he looked at the note and he looked at the blanket.
He knew at once the note was false. How did he know? As I said before, my grandparents were well known in the area. Adam knew them.
When the Germans came in many of the Jews gave away their things to friends and acquaintances who were non-Jews. “Take my wagon. Take my sewing machine. Keep it. If we survive, we’ll get it back. If we don’t, you’ll have it.”
Adam had been called to my grandparents’ home to pick something up shortly after I was born. And as he came into the house, he saw my grandmother carrying me in a very distinctive blanket that she herself had embroidered with ducks and geese.
He recognized that blanket now. He knew that this was the granddaughter of his friends. But he couldn’t say anything. He also knew that he had no choice but to take me to the police station.
Believe it or not, the police were divided in their opinions about what should be done with me. Another miracle. Some said: She’s a Polish child. Look at the note. We can’t kill her. Others said: It’s a ruse. Only Jews are doing this. We must kill her.
Just like the original child, I lay all day on a bench while they sent away to the Gestapo in the closest city. The response finally came back: Give her to somebody who will take care of her and we’ll get around to her later. At that time the Nazis were still careful about killing Polish children.
Adam grabbed me up and took me to his sister Vasillina and her husband Alexander, who were middle aged, very wealthy, and childless.
He encouraged them to take me by saying: You don’t have any children. You know who her parents and grandparents are. They are probably all dead. She’ll be a good daughter to you.
So they agreed to take me.
I guess I must have been very winsome (said with a big grin) because they grew to love me. They had me baptized Maria, the name used in both the notes, and they treated me as their own child.
But having me was not without its problems. The collaborators in the area, and the Nazi commandant did not forget about me. Many times people showed up at Vasillina and Alexander’s house to take care of me. Vasillina and Alexander never gave in. They bribed them, got them drunk, promised them things. They did whatever they had to do to keep me safe.
They even received an official letter saying they had to bring me to a nearby town on a certain day at a certain time. Vasillina went to her brother Adam to ask him what they should do. He told her they had to go, or the Nazis would come and kill them. But he advised her to go very late and to be prepared with a good excuse for her late arrival, like a broken axle or a wagon wheel that fell off.
Luckily, she took his advice. By the time she got there all the Jewish children who had been gathered from other homes in the area had already been killed. Among them, my mother’s one-year old nephew.
And the murderers were celebrating, well… not celebrating. Even these men were having a hard time killing little children. What they were… was drunk. Only their captain was not.
He shouted: How dare you come late? Vasillina told him the good excuse she had prepared.
He replied: Oh, very well, I’ll take care of her myself.
Vasillina stood up to him: Oh no. This child is mine. She has been baptized. You will not take her away from me.
Perhaps he was tired from the day’s killings, because he only said: Go on home. We’ll get her the next time around.
Or… it was another miracle.
Vasillina didn’t need to be told twice. She grabbed me and hurried home.
Things went on that way for Vasillina and Alexander and me for the next 2 1/2 years or a little more. During those same years, my parents were hiding in the woods.
The winters out there were awful. Snow and rain and blizzards. Where they spent the day, they did not spend the night. Where they spent the night, they did not spend the next day. They kept on moving for fear that someone might discover them.
What did they eat? Whatever they could scrounge. At first, they had things to barter. My mother’s wedding ring went… for bread. After awhile they could only beg.
In later years, my father often spoke about being turned away from homes, not in the city, but on farms where no one would ever know if someone had given him a piece of bread. And not only being turned away, but being shot at, or having to run from some farmer’s dogs that had been loosed on him.
At times, he had to break up ice with his bare feet to get across a stream to search for what would turn out to be rotting potatoes. My mother was very clean and at first she refused to drink the only water they had, brought up from puddles. There were little things jumping around in it. But eventually she did drink. It was what she had to do to survive.
My mother was almost beside herself with grief every time she looked in her arms and I was not there. The only thing that kept her going was a recurring dream. She and my father heard gossip that a child had been found and was living with Vasillina and Alexander. She saw me in a room in their house. My face in a cradle hanging from the ceiling, with two figures beside it, one on each side. When she looked at the two figures, one was her mother, and the other was my father’s mother. They were looking out for me, watching over me.
Although this dream lifted her spirits somewhat with regard to me, there was nothing that could lift them when my mother found out, only two months after I was given away, that her whole family: father, mother, brother, sisters, nieces and nephews, had been killed. 23 members of her family – suddenly gone. Ten members of my father’s family were also murdered.
Even at the end of the war, there was still a lot of fighting going on in the area. The Russians were coming back, the Germans were still trying to forge ahead. There were airplanes and bombing raids. Vasillina and Alexander’s home was very close to the front, so they decided to go to a nearby town thinking it would be safer.
Unfortunately, there was a measles outbreak in this town. Guess who caught the measles? In those days it was a very dangerous disease. Vasillina and Alexander went back home, but they didn’t know what to do for me. I became extremely ill, near death.
At this point they found out that my parents had survived. And so Alexander went to my parents. This was what he said: She’s dying. We know she’s your daughter. If you want to see her one last time you must come now.
Of course they came. But after seeing me my mother decided she was not going to give up. She said to Vasillina: The Russians are near. They have an Army hospital and doctors. Why don’t you and I take the baby and go to the hospital and ask for medicine?
Vasillina agreed and they took me and they ran. On the way, there was a bombing raid. As the bombs were flying, my mother threw me on the ground and threw herself over me. Vasillina threw herself over my mother and whispered in her ear: You’re younger. You must survive for our child and when you do be sure to tell her what I did for her.
The Russian doctor was not happy to see a civilian baby. It wasn’t, after all, his job to treat children, and he didn’t know exactly what to do. But he did say that there was a new medication, that only the officers had, that might be helpful. I don’t know what the medication was. In any case, my mother and Vasillina approached the officers, and to their credit every one of them gave them his supply of that medication. Another miracle.
I recovered and Vasillina took me home with her.
My mother and father went back to her parents’ home. It was the place they had lived when they were first married. Now there was nothing there. Only some straw. Everything had been taken away.
Which also meant there was no food. While my father was out foraging for some, he was picked up by the Russians and taken to dig ditches at the front.
My mother was now completely alone. She couldn’t stand it. She couldn’t stand losing her baby, her beloved family and now her husband. She began to think: Let me go to join my family. But before I go, maybe Vasillina will let me see the baby again.
When she arrived at Vasillina & Alexander’s home, she was surprised to find them putting furniture into a wagon. They were very pleased to see her. They needed help moving to town.
They asked her to hold me and ride in the wagon while Alexander took their first load in. After leaving us there, Alexander would go back to get another load and bring Vasillina into town. Then my mother could give me back.
There turned out to be a problem with this plan. After Alexander dropped us off and went back for that second load, my mother looked down at me in her arms, where she had so long wanted me to be and thought: I’m not giving up my baby again. I can’t.
So she took me away and refused to give me back to them.
Vasillina and Alexander found out where my mother was staying. I was still very, very sick. There was no indication that I would really survive all of this.
Still they considered me their child and they wanted me back. They went to a judge and explained the situation. Again a miracle happened. The judge said: I’m sorry, but this is their child. They did not freely, willingly, or happily give up this child.
And so I was reunited with my parents.
At the end of the war, my parents couldn’t stay in Poland anymore. They felt that there was nothing there for them. They saw 33 shallow graves everywhere.
They decided to leave but before they did, they went to Vasillina and Alexander and they said: We are so grateful to you. You saved our daughter. You saved our treasure. Please come with us. We will honor you. You will be grandparents. You will take the place of our families.
Vasillina and Alexander asked for time to think about it. After they did, they came back and said: You don’t know where you are going; where you will end up. We have our home here. We have our language… our family. …our customs …our religion …our churches. Everything that we know is here, so as much as we love her, as much as you honor us, we cannot go with you.
War is terrible for everybody. Everybody. But for the Jews it was catastrophic. For other people, as bad as it was, they still had something to hold onto. As Vasillina and Alexander observed: Everything that we know is [still] here.
My parents took me, crisscrossed Europe on trains: some tickets they could pay for, sometimes the conductors looked at them and just said “Go.” We made our way to a terrible displaced persons (DP) camp in Austria. Then we undertook a dangerous, and illegal, crossing of the Alps to reach a well-run DP camp in Italy; with me, the only child, hidden in my mother’s coat.
Since I am here today, you know my story doesn’t end in the camps. One important thing I would like to tell you about my life after is that Yankel was right. He and his wife did survive. They settled in Canada and when I married my father kept his promise, and I was escorted to the chuppah by my parents, and by Yankel and his wife.
The last memory I will share today is that I remember being in a room, kind of dark. There were lots of men, some women and I think I was the only child. And everyone was listening to the radio, some were taking notes. When the Russian vote at the UN was given, there was this tremendous shout! Yes. I do remember the creation of the state of Israel!
My family and I came to Israel three days before Thanksgiving in 1949. I was 7 1/2 years old.
I was home.
“I don’t know when my family members were killed, so my way of lighting yahrzeit candles is when I tell my story.” Marsha Tishler
Right before Yom HaShoah (on April 8, 2018) this survivor spoke her family’s yahrzeit at AISH DC in Rockville, Maryland. She was gracious enough to give me permission to share her words.
**The story is essentially unchanged but edited because speaking and writing are not the same.
Photo by Zoran Kokanovic on Unsplash