Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

5 Av 5765 - August 10, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Way Home

by E. Weil

An amazing story of a six-month-old Jewish baby who survived the horrible war years through miraculous Hashgochoh protis. The story of her rescue from a situation our minds simply can not even imagine. An inspiring story of holocaust, danger . . . and hope.


And you are not exempt from telling,

Even if your words are tough as sinews,

And don't let idleness stop you from your task,

Sit and write personal Megillas Eichoh,

Yours, and your generation's,

To tell your children, when they ask you.

This is the personal mission driving Mrs. Leah (Hirschman) Nebenzahl as she tells the story of her life. When the events unfold, you may think that you're caught up in a well- written work of fiction. But truth is stranger than fiction.

As Leah told me her story, it's hard to imagine from her modest demeanor everything she went through. What's unique about Leah's story is what she defines as, "I wasn't there." She doesn't remember almost anything about "there." Everything she recounts is based upon what was told to her by family members and acquaintances. At a certain stage, these facts began to stir her memory and to help her slowly fit the pieces of her life story together. It is a miraculous story of the both the physical and the spiritual salvation of a Jewish soul.

A Nameless Baby

I was born in 1942, at the height of the war — no, I don't know in which month I was born — in the city of Apta — also known as Optov — to young parents. I was their first and only girl. My parents were in the ghetto — we don't know its name, either — and evidently my father was captured by the Nazis in one of the akzions and my mother joined him by choice. They believed the Germans' propaganda machine that told them that they were being transferred to labor camps.

I was three-to-six months old at the time; no one can say exactly, but after the war we found a picture of me with my name on it that Ima sent to a relative. This was the last picture of me taken before I was separated from my parents. This is how I learned what my given Hebrew name was, that no one had known before. . .

My parents had a plan to save me. Since they knew they couldn't take me to the labor camp, they decided to find a temporary hiding place for me. This was part of the Hashgochoh protis plan to save my life. How many infants survived in the ghetto?

My parents decided to hand me over to our friend and neighbor, an elderly Polish policeman. Of course, they also handed over everything they owned to him so that he would take care of me until their return. So they hoped, of course. They asked him to take care of me until the end of the war when they would return for me. . . I know now that they were sent to Treblinka and never returned.

From the Polish Policeman to the Adoption

I spent several months at the home of the Polish policeman and his wife, who will tell their story later. They were an elderly couple, and the wife constantly nagged her husband to get rid of me. She was afraid that they would be caught with a baby that they couldn't claim as their own because of their age. She feared for her own life, and was afraid that the neighbors would report them to the authorities.

He finally gave in to her pleading. One day he took me and put me onto the railroad tracks. . . . Boruch Hashem I am alive to tell this story! The fact that I am alive tells us that no train went by during that time.

The policeman ran in the meantime, full of remorse, to the local priest, to confess his guilt over my death. The priest heard his story and offered to take me in himself. When the policeman heard this he ran happily to get me. Yes, the policeman himself ran to pick me up and bring me to the priest's house.

The priest didn't waste any time and quickly brought me to an orphanage that was run by nuns. I was there, evidently, until I was nine months old. The Polish policeman evidently cared about me somewhat, and for that reason he continued to keep an eye on me in the orphanage.

He saw that many childless Christian couples would come to the orphanage looking for babies to adopt. One of these couples liked me and wanted to adopt me. The nuns cautioned against it because they knew that I was Jewish and thought that perhaps after the war my parents might come looking for me and demand my return. But the couple couldn't be dissuaded. They said that they would have me baptized and in doing so, I would become a true member of their family.

So I was adopted by this young couple, and lived with them until I was five years old. The policeman was the sole witness to my secret past. But I grew up never knowing that this couple was not my natural parents. They were my entire world. I was sure that I was a Christian girl like all the others.

The Polish policeman had a big part in my life. There was a trial after the war — I'll tell you about it later — and the policeman, the only one who knew of my past, gave testimony at the trial. He was very sick at the time, half- paralyzed, but he gave unequivocal testimony that he had known my parents and that I was Jewish. He passed away three months after the trial.

It's clear to me that the Hashgochoh protis that watched over me all those years sent him to the trial to save my soul, and Hashem kept him alive until he completed his task. Because of his testimony I was able to return to Judaism. But it was a long journey.


Leah spent four years with her adopted, Christian family. "I have no recollection of selections, of trains, of electrified barbed wire, but I also have no memories of my existence, my parents. . . " This is how Leah remembers her childhood.


I was brought up with the `culture' of antisemitism. I was taught to be wary of Jews who have `horns and tails.' I knew that Jews and gypsies kidnapped children, so you better watch out for them. This was pounded into my head by my adoptive parents. I would kneel before the cross with my adopted mother every night before going to sleep.

As a five-year-old, I learned how Jews baked matzos by kneading them with children's blood. I grew up on these stories and they became part of me. And I might have lived as a Christian for the rest of my life, but Hashem was watching my Jewish soul, and through Hashgochoh, a messenger discovered me in a incredible way.

How did it happen? That's a story within a story that takes us back to scenes from the past:

A Miracle in the Gas Chambers

Ima was the youngest child of a large family. Years later, my aunt — her sister — told me about her. She was the only one in the family who had traveled to study with Sarah Schenirer o"h. She was one of her close students and she was later sent to several small villages to open up new schools.

One of Ima's sisters — maybe the oldest — was named Esther. Her married name was Eisenberg. She got married while Ima was still a child. She was in Lodz when the war caught up with her and she was put into the Lodz ghetto along with the rest of the Jews. She couldn't come to Ima's wedding, which took place during the war. Telephones were rare and travel was difficult. She only found out about the wedding later on. There was no chance for her to hear about the birth of a niece: me, that is.

The physical distance between Ima and Esther, as well as the difference in their ages, kept them apart. When the war broke out, my aunt, my mother's sister, already had seven children. She arrived at Auschwitz with only one of them (the rest, including her husband, were lost). When the two of them stood in line for the `showers,' towel in hand, a kapo suddenly burst in and demanded that five hundred women come with him immediately for work — paving roads.

Those ever-efficient Germans took the first five hundred women according to alphabetical order and since my aunt's name was Eisenberg, she was chosen. Saved from the gas chambers at the last minute. That's how Hashgochoh saved both my aunt and me.

At the end of the war, my aunt was at Bergen-Belsen. As soon as the camps were liberated, everyone stared searching for surviving family members. Makeshift offices were opened and lists of survivors began to appear. My aunt went right away to sign up at one of the offices. There she met a clerk who was herself a survivor.

The Aunt Discovers a Baby

The clerk questioned my aunt about her family before and during the war, and Aunt Esther mentioned the names of cities and ghettos where her sisters and brothers had lived. Among others, she mentioned the name of the ghetto where Ima had gotten married. The clerk suddenly sprang to life and said, `I'm also from there. I knew your sister!'

Then, it was as if she threw a bomb into the room. `Did you know that she left a baby girl behind?'

My aunt was absolutely astounded. In the inferno of the war, she had known that her sister had gotten married, but had never heard that she had a baby girl. `Where is she now?' Aunt Esther asked with trepidation.

The clerk told her that Ima had given her to a Polish policeman and everyone in the ghetto knew about it at the time. When my aunt heard this she cancelled her plans to move to Israel and hurriedly sent her daughter there instead, the only daughter that had survived the war. She decided to return to Poland to look for me.

The roads were dangerous then. The hatred for any surviving Jew was palpable on the goyim's faces. Most of the survivors tried to leave blood-soaked Europe in any way possible.

But Ima's sister was undeterred. She went back to hate-and blood-soaked Poland to try to find her niece, hoping that she was still alive. According to the address that she had been given, she came to the home of the Polish policeman and asked for the baby girl that had been left in his hands for safekeeping five years previously. The policeman acknowledged that he had taken the baby, but told her that he hadn't been with her for several years now. He readily agreed to give my aunt the address of my adoptive parents.

In the meantime, official committees were formed in Europe to look for surviving Jews, especially those that had been given to non-Jews for safekeeping. With the help of these good Jews, my aunt approached my adoptive family. She introduced herself and asked them to give me to her, in exchange for payment. The couple, who had grown attached to me, responded with total denial. `She has always been our daughter, and never had anything to do with any Jews,' they lied.

What could she do now? Faced with a huge dilemma, my aunt devised a plan. Perhaps it was dangerous, but she had no choice. She decided to kidnap me!

A place was arranged in a military hospital for me. There was slim chance that anyone would look for a five-year-old girl there, especially with a nurse at her side. All that had to be done was to get me in and out of there quickly and quietly.

Morning Kidnapping

The fear . . . the risks . . . but the stumbling-block that came up was unexpected. The `kidnapping' is my earliest traumatic memory from childhood. Here my journey begins.

I woke up from a sweet winter slumber in a dim room filled with people. This is how I described the scene years later, `Out of the corner of my eye I saw a strange woman taking off a green coat and spreading it over a table, saying, `If you don't give me her clothes, I will wrap her in this coat and take her.'

She came near me as if to drag me. How does a five-year-old feel when strangers are surrounding her bed and trying to take her away from her parents? Maybe paralyzed with fear?

Not me! I fought! I held on to the iron bedstead and started to shout, `Father, mother! Don't give me away!' My adoptive parents didn't dare oppose the group of people. Maybe because they knew the truth. But I fought them — and how! With all my might, I held on to the bed with fingers pale from fright, and they simply couldn't tear me away from the bed. When my aunt lifted me up in her arms, the bed came along with me since I was holding on to it so tightly.

From my point of view, an unexpected miracle took place. She let go of me for a second and left the room. I was overcome with fear and lack of self-confidence, although I was in the hands of `my parents' who immediately wrapped me up in a shawl and took me to another place. But I was already fear- ridden, fearful of anyone who came near me.

Why did my aunt leave me? It turns out that when the scene in my house had unfolded and my screams could be heard outside, rumors started flying that Jews were coming to kidnap Christian children. The angry villagers started to come out of their houses and surround the car that was waiting outside for us. Lives were in danger, and my aunt didn't want to endanger anyone's life in a mission that was so complicated to begin with. So it was decided to leave me where I was and to escape from the village.

In retrospect they made the correct decision, for the villagers chased the car and started pelting it with stones all the way out of town. Thinking that Jews were hiding in the small police station on the edge of town, they simply carried out a pogrom. My aunt and the people that were with her miraculously escaped from the failed kidnapping, but they didn't forget about me.

Because the kidnapping attempt had failed, they decided to turn to the courts. The chances of winning there seemed slim, since my aunt had absolutely no papers proving our familial relationship. And if they were to consider the welfare of the child — me, that was —- well, they would see that the child was living in an established family. It seemed unlikely that the courts would favor a homeless refuge. And don't forget, the Polish courts were unquestionably antisemitic.

But Aunt Esther had no other choice. She appeared before the judge with the two resources she had learned from Yaakov Ovinu: a gift — bribe money, in other words — and fervent prayers. The only person who agreed to testify on my aunt's behalf was the Polish policeman. He did it with a supreme effort, as I have already told you. But his testimony was the deciding factor, as we will see in the continuation of my story.

Court Decision

The court case took place, but the judge refused to render a decision! He postponed the official decision. He later explained to us that he felt that he feared for his life. If he decided to give a Christian child to Jews, he might be harmed. This was in spite of the fact that my aunt was telling the truth.

She waited for the continuation, as she and all those helping her prayed for a just ruling. The next hearing was held behind closed doors, at the judge's request. To our surprise, the judge ruled in favor of my aunt!

Our prayers had been accepted. His decision defied all expectations. My `parents' accepted the court's decision. Of course, at the time I knew nothing about what was going on. I thought that my memories of the near-kidnapping were simply a bad dream and the `danger' had passed.

However, my adoptive mother started to prepare me for what was coming. Matter-of-factly, she mentioned that she might have to give me up, because she didn't have money to buy me food. . . Well, they really were people without means and this sounded feasible.

Imagine how a five-year-old girl feels when her parents inform her that she might be turned over to strangers just because they can't afford to support her! My entire world collapsed. I lost all of my self-confidence, and I didn't really understand what was happening.

My aunt sympathized with what I was going through; she had already seen how I was capable of reacting. That's why she understood that I wouldn't go with her willingly, even though my `parents' had given their consent. So a sophisticated plan was set into motion, made up of several stages. My adoptive parents cooperated all along the way. This was truly a sign of Hashem's Hand, for without their cooperation, the plan would surely have fallen through.

The Plan

The first stage of the plan included a visit with my `parents' to a (real) Polish aunt in the metropolis of Cracow. The trip seemed innocent enough. This was a new experience for me, since my `parents' had never been able to afford to take trips.

After we had been in my aunt's house for a few days, a few people came for a visit. They were introduced as friends of my uncle. They talked to my uncle and played with me. Once I was comfortable in their presence, one of the `friends' offered to take me on a short visit to one of Cracow's beautiful parks.

Hesitating somewhat, I went out with them, torn between my apprehension of leaving my `parents' for even a short while and my desire to see something of Cracow, especially when I saw the shiny black taxi outside. I was a small-town girl who had spent her life in poverty, and I had never ridden in such a beautiful car! I was simply hypnotized by the car. I gave my adoptive mother a questioning glance. I wanted her to encourage me with a smile, but she just slowly turned her head away. She couldn't look me in the eye. She knew the purpose of the ride. The beautiful taxi was the deciding factor, and I overcame my fear. And I knew that I wasn't getting into it alone.

This is how my journey home began.

The Ruse

The ride was a pleasant one. I vaguely remember that we passed several beautiful parks. Suddenly my Polish `uncle' said, `Oh, we're close to my office. I have to pick up some papers there, and I'll pick you up later.' I was suddenly overtaken by inexplicable fear. The one person I knew was leaving me. But I had no choice in the matter. I knew that I had to go along with them, even though I would have much preferred to stay with the `uncle.'

He got out of the car and we continued to drive. At a certain stage I realized, with my childish understanding, that the city's houses were disappearing and that we were on an interurban road. I was frightened. I asked, `Where are we going? We're so far away from the house!' They explained that we were just going for a ride, and that we would come back.

I was sure that they were lying, but what could a five-year- old trapped in a car with strangers do? Scream cry, kick. . . and I did all of these.

We drove for a long time until we reached another city. It's been more than fifty years since this happened and I can't adequately describe what went through my mind then, when I realized that I was being taken away from my family and facing the unknown.

We came to a big house. I had been sure that the people I was with were Christians, and that I was surely being taken to a Christian home, and the thought was comforting. The house had a lot of children, all like me, and so I had been right, but instead of what I had expected, they were all Jewish children!

All of them had been taken out of Christian homes and considered themselves to be completely Christian. In order to ease our transition, the people in charge let us act like Christians. They let us pray the prayers we were used to and even let us use the names that we had been given by our adoptive families. Our last names, however, were changed, but usually to a name that sounded familiar. Gradually, I got used to life at the orphanage, and I began to make friends with the children in my age group.


Children are amazingly adaptive. Slowly, the orphanage staff began telling us about a wonderful, far-off land to which we would eventually travel, where the sun beats down year "round and the land is full of orange groves."

This is how Leah, fifty years later, describes the orphanage through the eyes of a child:

The orphanage in Zavje seemed to me to be like a transit stop to which I was simply catapulted from the shiny taxi. Children from the ages of five until ten, comrades in their sorrow as well as their hopes, all with new last names. In a separate room that the staff called a synagogue — even though the cross still affected us emotionally and we would bow down to it — we soon learned to murmur a prayer in a new language: Shema Yisroel!

There, at night, when the longing for a good-night pat from mother or father grows stronger, he would come to us, like a father. Captain Drucker was his name (to me at the time, he was nameless, like the rest of the staff there).

He would sit among us, we unmoving children, and tell us over and over of a wonderful land, where even in winter, the sun's rays warm the earth, which then sprouts brilliant oranges. I wondered why the name of this far-off land was the name mentioned in the prayer they taught us. I longed for that dream to come true, to replace the nightmares. Sometimes I could believe in it . . . and at other times, dismiss it as fantasy.

They treated us with utmost care, gradually teaching us to daven Shema Yisroel, even as we were kneeling in front of a cross.


All during this time, my aunt kept her distance from the orphanage, so that I wouldn't realize our connection. One day — it must have been on one of the Jewish holidays — I happened to pass by the local synagogue. Of course, I had no idea what it was. I was absolutely frightened to see that green coat hung on a hook in the hall! That threatening coat that was the epitome of fear, reminding me of the attempt to kidnap me from my parents. I realized that she must be here! In the orphanage! I ran and hid in my room. I shoved all the little chairs and tables that were in the room against the door so that know one could possibly get in and take me away.

But gradually my aunt started to come and visit me — without the coat. She tried to win me over; bought me sweets, a rarity at that time. On one hand, I longed for the sweets, but I didn't want to accept anything from her! In the end, I used a trick to get the candy. I told her that I would accept it on condition that she buy candy for everyone in my group. Every time she came to see me, she had to face the entire group. This was the only way I would agree to see her.

She later told me the following anecdote, which I don't remember but it seems to fit in with the way I was brought up by my adoptive parents. One of children told me, `What a good aunt you have; she buys you anything you want.' There were children in the orphanage who had no relatives at all, and no one paid any extra attention to them.

While everyone was envious of the relationship between me and my aunt, I would tell them, `Don't feel sorry for her. All Jews are rich and they can buy whatever their hearts desire.' Antisemitism was thoroughly entrenched in my character.

To Understand His Goodness

I spent less than a year in the orphanage, which was meant to be a stopover home before our aliyah to Eretz Yisroel. We needed certificates from the Mandate authorities, since this was before Israel became a state.

My aunt thought it would be dangerous to remain in Poland, where the Communists had started to take over. She feared that they would close the gates of the country — and later she was proven right. She decided not to wait until the whole group got permission, but rather to flee illegally through the smuggling organization that was helping refuges enter Eretz Yisroel illegally. Her plan was for us to travel through Czechoslovakia and Austria and then to Germany, where her sister lived. Of course, I knew nothing about these plans.

One night, she came for me and told me that we were going on a long trip. I had no choice but to join her. She wrapped me in a blanket and whisked me off. I found myself in a dark place, surrounded by people. I can especially picture a man dressed in rubber gear. We were on the edge of a lake and the man simply carried me across the river.

The Escape

I was warned not to make a sound. They had to warn me, because otherwise I would have screamed with fear and given away the whole group that was fleeing across the Czech border. The rest of the group were all adults or teenagers, and could have walked the whole way, but I was just a little girl and couldn't walk that far. So they had to have a plan: a Czech village woman agreed to take care of me for an hour. She went to Bratislava by train, with me next to her, holding a doll. A perfectly innocent-looking foil for any police inspection. She could say that I was her daughter.

Of course, I was again warned not to say a word, since I could speak Polish only and I was acting the part of a Czech girl. I remember feeling that I had better not even cry. I didn't know where they were taking me. My heart — the heart of a six-year-old — was filled with fear and uncertainty.

To the Promised Land

We reached Bratislava; me by train and my aunt on foot. The city was crawling with policemen looking for people who didn't have official papers, and it was dangerous to be there. My aunt looked for a safe place for us to stay, and after a long time, she got help from the smuggling organization, that took us on impossible ways through Austria to Germany.

I remember that I would wake up from time to time and would sometimes find myself in a standard train compartment and sometimes in the back of a stifling truck. I wasn't aware of all the dangers, the fears, and the difficulties that my aunt went through until we reached our temporary destination — Germany.

I was also unaware of the added danger that I imposed upon my aunt when I tried to keep my distance from her, as if she were my greatest enemy. She had to be wary of my unpredictable, dangerous reactions. When we got to her sister's house, she breathed a sigh of relief, and said, `You take her!'

We lived in her sister's house for about a year — of course, she was also my aunt. It was 1948. Slowly but surely I got used to the people around me. This aunt was younger, a mother, and I had the company of her young twins, so I began to feel better.

But I still wasn't home. The question was always what could be done; who could help us. Germany was certainly no place to build a life. My young aunt and her husband decided to try to go to Toronto, but my aunt told me that she certainly did not go through so many perilous experiences to take me out of the hands of goyim just to have me live among goyim once again. She wanted to bring me to Eretz Yisroel.

We waited until it was possible to get passage to Israel, finally arriving in May 1949, after the State was established. We landed at the airport, where we were given our very first oranges — the same oranges that we had been told about in the orphanage. My aunt immediately enrolled me in a religious school so I could begin to learn not only alef beis but everything about Judaism. School and friends did their job well. I finally learned to appreciate Judaism and being a Jewish girl.

It's hard to believe, but it took years for me to forgive my aunt and to learn to appreciate her courage and all the danger she went through on my behalf. Perhaps it was when she was quite old and sick and I, along with her daughter, took care of her. Only when I grew up did I come to understand the tremendous Hashgochoh protis that watched over me as an infant and even more so as I grew up, and then sent my aunt, the faithful servant, to save me from a Christian future and to return me to Judaism. I am still trying to understand and appreciate the depths of Hashem's kindness to me.


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