My mother, Molly Greenberg, was born on December 22, 1924 in an Eastern European Jewish shtetl called Skala Podolskaya, located in what was then part of Poland. Her life, by any reasonable scrutiny, contained a plethora of reasons for her to have been a bitter, lifeless, misanthropic human being. After all, she was an orphan at an early age, having lost both her parents to illness - her father when she was only three months, and her mother when she was two years old. Her five older siblings, three brothers and two sisters, raised her. Her childhood was punctuated by a myriad of deprivations; nights of going to bed hungry, a sparse supply of clothing, intense loneliness, and wishing to have the attentive, protective mothering that was impossible to expect from a sister only twelve years her elder. Yet, she was blessed with a love of learning and a wisdom and understanding of people and life that was far beyond her years. Her strong belief in G‑d and His Torah was crucial to her ability to experience happiness within an uncertain world.
She lived in constant fear of discovery and extermination Whatever stability existed in my mother's world was shattered on September 17, 1939, when the Soviet army entered and seized control of Skala. That day marked the beginning of the end of a flourishing Jewish community. By the end of July 1942, it was the German military that controlled the area. No Jew in Skala was safe.
Not until my mother was older and entered her sixties could she openly acknowledge (through the written word, but still not verbally) her painful youth of living through the Holocaust. I am in the process of writing a book about her life, centering on her stories of her past. There is no question that the crimes of the past should never be forgotten. To me, her triumph over adversity, her ability to love and do more than just survive, and the powerful role G‑d played in her life are examples from which we can all learn and gain strength.
My mother was able to survive the war by pretending she was Mary (not Molly), a non-Jew. Even in this disguise, she lived in constant fear of discovery and extermination.
When we think of Chanukah, we remember the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil that occurred years ago. To me, G‑d's power and benevolence was again demonstrated by the miracle He performed on the first day of Chanukah in 1942.
Of note, in the year 2008, Chanukah begins on December 22. On that day, had she been alive, Molly Greenberg would be celebrating her 84th birthday.
What follows is a true story that my mother, Molly Greenberg, wrote explaining, in part, how she survived World War II.
Chanukah, the Holiday of Lights, is a time of joy, gratification, and festival celebrations. It is the time for latkes and jelly doughnuts. For me, Chanukah, latkes and jelly doughnuts have a special meaning. It was during World War II when Poland was occupied by the Nazis. It was in the year 1942, when the Gestapo started the process of making the cities and towns "Judenfrei," which means, "free of Jews." They would gather a large group of people and just kill them or load them into cattle trains and send them to concentration camps.
I knew I had nothing to lose After one such "pogrom," in which I lost some of my family, I felt that I must do something. I couldn't just wait there to be killed. I was a seventeen-year-old girl, blond with blue eyes and a very light complexion. I looked like a typical non-Jewish Polish girl. So I decided to go to a faraway city where nobody would know me, and no one would know that I was Jewish.
But it was easier said than done. Because I lived all my life in a small village, which I had never left before, just going on a train for the first time was a big endeavor for me, aside from the great danger the trip represented. To make sure no one was Jewish the Germans were checking everyone's passport or some other document. For a big sum of money you could get an Aryan passport, but I was very poor and couldn't obtain one. So I decided to go anyway. I knew I had nothing to lose; I would die either way.
It was December 12th, the first day of Chanukah. My sister packed a bundle with some clothes and some food for me to take on the way. I took off my yellow Jewish star, which every Jew was forced to wear on his right arm, and I went to the train station. I bought a ticket, walked into the last car and sat in the far corner, frightened to death.
I saw the Gestapo officer coming towards me All of a sudden, I heard some commotion at the door. I looked up and saw a Gestapo officer coming into the car. He was checking everybody's bundles and documents. I suddenly realized that the food that my sister had packed was a deadly weapon that could for sure kill me. She had packed Chanukah latkes and jelly doughnuts - traditional, symbolic Jewish foods. I knew then that even if by some miracle I could talk my way out of not having a Gentile document by lying - saying that I'd lost it or forgotten it at home - I could never explain the latkes and doughnuts in my bundle.
What happened in the next few minutes I can only describe as some kind of miracle. As I sat there paralyzed by fear, not being able to move or even think clearly, I saw the Gestapo officer coming towards me. At that moment, a little girl who was sitting with her mother next to me, eating an apple, suddenly stood up and ran across the car, spitting out the apple all over the floor. The Gestapo officer took one more step toward me, slipped on a piece of the apple and fell. I don't know what happened to him. I was too stunned, too flabbergasted to ask questions. I saw some people carry him out of the car and then the train pulled out of the station, taking me to my destination.
I realized then that Someone up there wanted me to survive.