Dawn Breaks Night: 10 Stories of Survival During the Holocaust
Dawn Breaks Night: 10 Stories of Survival During the Holocaust

Dawn Breaks Night: 10 Stories of Survival During the Holocaust

Jennifer Conerly - October 18, 2017

Dawn Breaks Night: 10 Stories of Survival During the Holocaust
Jan Żabiński. yadvashem.org

4. Jan and Antonina Żabiński

Jan Żabiński and Antonina Żabińska lived in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. Jan was a zoologist and the director of the Warsaw Zoo, and he and his wife Antonina lived on the grounds in a villa. Jan, Antonina, and their son Ryszard used their villa and the zoo itself to hide over 300 Jews from the Nazis.

Jan’s profession as a zoologist allowed him to cross into the Warsaw ghettos to study the animal and plant life there. He was able to remain in contact with many of his prewar colleagues who lived inside the ghetto and helped them find shelter outside of the ghettos.

In September 1939, before the air assault on Warsaw, the Nazis arrived at the Warsaw Zoo and emptied the cages of animals, either killing them or sending them to Berlin. Many of the cages in the zoo were empty, but the Nazis turned the zoo into a pig farm so the couple would keep the zoo open. The Żabińskis began to take in Jews and hide them in the cages and their home until they could find shelter somewhere else.

Dawn Breaks Night: 10 Stories of Survival During the Holocaust
Antonina Żabińska. yadvashem.org

They also used the cages in the zoo to hide weapons for the Polish resistance. The Żabińskis even developed a secret code for when the Nazis came to inspect the zoo. Antonina would play certain songs on her piano, each with a designated meaning so that those in hiding knew what was happening. Jan was a member of the Polish resistance army Armia Krajowa, and he fought against the Germans in August and September 1944 in the Warsaw Polish Uprising. He was taken as a prisoner of war and transported to Germany.

Antonina stayed behind in Warsaw, where she continued to shelter and look after Jews in hiding. The Żabińskis were honored in 1968 at a tree-planting ceremony at Yad Vashem that honored the Righteous Among the Nations, a term used to describe non-Jews who assisted Jews in hiding during World War II.

She kept a diary during the war years, which author Diane Ackerman used as source material for her book about the Żabińskis, The Zookeeper’s Wife, published in 2007. In 2017, the book was turned into a film of the same name.

Dawn Breaks Night: 10 Stories of Survival During the Holocaust
The Stermer family. Image copyright by Saul Stermer. Daily Mail

5. The Stermer Family

The Germans invaded Ukraine in 1941, and they began to order Jews to the ghettos. Esther Stermer, the matriarch of her family, refused to bring her family into the ghettos. The Stermers lived in Korolowka when the Nazis arrived in fall of 1942. The Gestapo began to force the Jews of the city into trucks to transport them to the concentration camps. Over the next few weeks, the Germans found the remaining Jews left in the city and forced them to dig their graves before killing them.

The Stermers and five families fled the town in the middle of the night and found shelter in a cave. For a year and a half, the families lived underground, hiding from the Germans. In all, thirty-eight people were living in the cave. They stayed hidden during the day, and they would come out at night for food and supplies. Eventually, the Germans found the cave in which they were hiding.

When the Germans found the cave, Esther confronted the soldiers. She reportedly said, “What are you afraid of here? The Fuhrer is going to lose the war because we live here?” The German SS soldiers left the cave and never came back. When the Russians liberated Ukraine in 1944, the families were able to come out of hiding.

The Stermers and the five other families successfully remained in hiding for eighteen months, the longest underground survival event in history. After the war, Esther Stermer wrote a memoir of their experiences called We Fight to Survive.

Dawn Breaks Night: 10 Stories of Survival During the Holocaust
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

6. Selma Schwarzwald

In 1941, the Germans invaded the town of Lvov, Poland, where Selma Schwarzwald and her family lived. Her father and mother Daniel Schwarzwald and Laura Litwak grew up in Lvov, and her father ran a lucrative lumber business. They were both multilingual, speaking Polish, German, Russian, and Yiddish. Daniel Schwarzwald was worried about the German invasion, and he wanted to evacuate to Britain. Laura was afraid to leave her parents behind, so they were forced to move into the ghettos.

Selma’s father was able to get false papers for his family, but he was killed by the Germans five days before Selma and her mother escaped. Selma and her mother used the false documents that Daniel was able to get for his family and escaped the ghettos in Lvov on a train, ending up in the town of Busko Zdroj. Selma and her mother changed their names and hid their identities, living in their new home as Catholics. Her mother told her never to reveal her real name or where they were from to anyone.

Selma was only five years old when this happened, so she forgot that she was Jewish. In school, she learned that Germans and Jews were the enemies: The Germans had killed Poles, and the Jews had crucified Jesus. When she asked her mother about Jewish people, her mother responded that the Jews that she knew weren’t all bad. Selma and her mother moved to England after the war.

She learned that she was Jewish in 1948, and it came as a shock to her because she had lived as a Catholic for so long and was taught in school to hate Jews. In 1963, Selma moved to the United States where she became a radiation oncologist, and she officially changed her name to Sophie Turner-Zaretsky.

Today in History: Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Ends.

Dawn Breaks Night: 10 Stories of Survival During the Holocaust
Chaim and Sophia de Zoete with their children. pri.org

7. Chaim and Sophia de Zoete

When the Nazis invaded Holland, the de Zoete family decided to go into hiding. The couple had three daughters, Mirjam, Judith, and Hadassah. They split the family up and found different places for their children to hide, but they had difficulty finding a place for themselves. Mirjam remembers not seeing her parents for almost three years. She knew the first family that hid her. They changed her name and cut off her long braids to help conceal her identity.

Mirjam was sent to live with two more families during the war and finally ended up staying with a woman named Tante Nel. She was a single mother who had a child of her own, and she was hiding another Jewish boy. She hid Mirjam underneath her kitchen floor. Food was so scarce near the end of the war that Tante Nel had to feed them mashed tulip bulbs to keep them from starving.

Chaim and Sophia desperately tried to find places to hide. Finally, a coworker of Chaim’s from before the war brought the couple to Rotterdam’s Breeplein church and introduced them to the church’s minister. He and the church’s caretaker hid Chaim and Sophia behind the church organ, where they stayed for two and a half years until the end of the war. They had to lay in bed all day because people in the church would be able to hear them if they moved.

Chaim gave his wife sleeping pills to keep her calm, and after the war, she struggled with an addiction to them. A few months before the war ended, they were very close to being discovered when Nazi officers came to the church looking for weapons. Breeplein church still stands today, featuring a plaque that highlights the church’s role in hiding Jews during World War II.

After the war was over, the de Zoete children were removed from their hiding places and reunited with their parents at Breeplein church. Mirjam, who lives in Connecticut as of 2015, remembers that because of where they were hiding, her parents hated the sound of organ music for the rest of their lives.

Dawn Breaks Night: 10 Stories of Survival During the Holocaust
Menachem Frenkel. yadvashem.org

8. Menachem Frenkel

When World War II broke out, the Frenkel family attempted to emigrate to England, but they were unable to escape. The family moved to southern France where the Nazis took Menachem Frankel’s father in July 1942 and sent him to Auschwitz. In September of that year, the rest of the family was arrested and taken to Venissieux.

That same year, three aid organizations, the OSE (Children’s Aid Society), the Jewish Underground in Lyons, and Amitie Chretienne, began to remove Jewish children from the camps and find safe places for them to hide.

Menachem and his sister were brought to the Chateau de Peyrins and placed under the care of Madame Germaine Chesneau. Their names were changed, and they spent the next eighteen months hiding in the chateau with 108 other Jewish children.

While he doesn’t remember much of his stay in Chateau de Peyrins, he does remember that they only celebrated Christian holidays and he worked in the garden on the property. Madame Chesneau became fearful of discovery one night when one of her workers had not returned, so she found other places in nearby villages for the children to hide.

Menachem and his sister were split up: he was sent to Rosans, a nearby village, and his sister was brought to a monastery. Menachem lived with a family in Rosans called the Hughes. They hid him in the attic, but they gave him plenty of food and allowed him to read and study. He stayed with the Hughes until the end of the war, and he was reunited with his family. They relocated to Israel in September 1945.

Dawn Breaks Night: 10 Stories of Survival During the Holocaust
Hanni Levy with her daughter Nicole. slate.com

9. Hanni Levy

By 1943, Hanni Weissenburg was living in Berlin and she was completely alone: her parents were dead, and her grandmother had been sent to Theresienstadt. She was forced into labor working in a textile factory for the Nazis when she lost part of her finger in a machine accident in February 1943. She went to the hospital, and when she returned, she witnessed what became known as the Fabrikaktion, the last attempt to empty Berlin of its Jewish population.

She saw all of the Jews forced into labor in her Berlin neighborhood being rounded up for transport to concentration camps. Hanni had many non-Jewish friends before the war, and she asked them for help. She had no identification papers, no food, and no money. One of her friends took her in and helped her change her appearance so that she could go into hiding. Hanni went to her uncle, who helped her obtain a fake ID, but he wouldn’t help her hide. She spent the next few weeks moving around to different places, staying anywhere that would give her shelter.

Hanni bounced around from place to place, staying for three months with a family called the Mosts, who she says treated her like a daughter. Eventually, Mr. Most had to go into hiding as well for evading his military service. Hanni used her new identity to indulge in things that she couldn’t do as a Jew in Berlin, like going to the movies.

She befriended a cashier named Viktoria Kolzer at the movie theater she frequented. Eventually, Hanni asked her for help in hiding. Kolzer took Hanni in, and the two women lived quietly together until the end of the war.

After the Nazi regime fell, Hanni struggled to retain her old identity because she had lived so long in hiding. In 1946, she left Berlin and moved to Paris, where she married. She approached the Yad Vashem in 1978 and had the Most family and Viktoria Kolzer recognized for their assistance to her during the war.

In November 2010, she had a plaque installed in front of the building where she and Kolzer lived in Berlin. As of an interview given in 2011, Hanni still visits the Kolzer family every year.

Dawn Breaks Night: 10 Stories of Survival During the Holocaust
Jeannine Burk at age 7. Photo credit by Jeannine Burk.
holocaustsurvivors.org

10. Jeannine Burk

Jeannine Burk was born the youngest of three children in Brussels, Belgium. Even though Belgium was a neutral power, the Nazis invaded the country in 1940. When the Nazis invaded, her father split up the family and found different hiding places for them. He sent Jeannine to a house where she would be hidden with a Catholic family. This was the last time she ever saw her father. Someone who Jeannine’s father worked with had exposed Jeannine’s family to the Gestapo, and they came and arrested her father.

While Jeannine was in hiding, she was able to move around the house where she was staying, but she lived in isolation, and she was very rarely allowed to go outside. She lived with this family from ages 3 to 5, so she remembered very little as an adult.

What she did remember is that she was never abused, but she was never loved. The Nazis used to parade down the streets of the places that they occupied, and when the Nazis paraded down the street where Jeannine was staying, she had to hide in an outhouse.

After the liberation of Belgium in 1944 by the Allied forces, Jeannine and her family were reunited, and they waited for her father to return. The family found out three months after the liberation that her father had died in Auschwitz. When Jeannine was ten years old, her mother died of cancer. After her mother’s death, Jeannine was adopted by family members who lived in New York. Jeannine lived in New York for twenty years before she relocated to the Greater New Orleans area of Louisiana.

Read More: When US Refused To Save Jewish Refugees From Nazi Germany?

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