ROSE LIPSYZC (nee HANDELSMAN)
B. May 27 1929 (90 years old) in Lublin, Poland. Now lives in Toronto.
When the Nazis occupied her hometown of Lublin, Rose and her family moved to the countryside to try and avoid the brutal restrictions put on Jews, and the confinement in ghettos. But by October 1942, the Nazis began ‘clearing’ the countryside of Jews. On October 14, 12-year-old Rose and her family were forced to gather in a market square in the town of Belzyce. Men were separated from their families and put onto trucks. This is the last time she saw her father. In the film, Rose travels to Poland with three of her granddaughters (Sarah, Brittney and Tara). For the first time in 77 years she visits the market square where she last saw her father. Rose recalls being told that he was taken to Majdanek concentration camp. Rose visits the Majdanek Museum. The concentration camp is completely preserved today. A historian tells her how her Father, a tailor, would have been useful to the Nazis, sorting the Jewish clothing amassed during Operation Reinhard, the Nazi operation to exterminate all of Poland’s Jews. Tailors were used to search clothing belonging to Jews who had been gassed. They were searching for any valuables sewn into the seams and also repairing clothing which was then sent to the poor in Germany. The historian also tells Rose about Operation Harvest Festival in November 1943, when all the Jews working at Majdanek (18,000) were shot in one day. If Rose’s father was at Majdanek working as a tailor there is no way he could have survived this massacre.
After Rose’s father was taken away on trucks in 1942, Rose, her mother, and her little brother Heniek (aged 6) were forced along with thousands of other women and children, along a road towards a train station. Everyone was hauling bags and suitcases, believing they were being ‘re-settled.’ But Rose’s mother knew what was happening. As they neared the train station she turned to Rose and told her that they were going to their death, but that Rose had to survive. She physically pushed Rose out of the line of deportees, and off the road. As her mother and brother disappeared into the crowd, Rose stood in shock on the side of the road. A guard approached and asked if she was Polish or Jewish. Rose was blonde with blue eyes and freckles. She froze, petrified. And from a nearby wagon came a shout “Can’t you see she’s a Polish girl?” The guard moved on. Rose ran for hours and arrived at the house of a Polish farmer called Stanislaw Jabloinski. He saved her life by giving her his youngest daughter’s identity. Rose never saw her mother or brother again. All of the Jews marching on that road were taken by train to Sobibor death camp. Rose’s mother and brother included.
In the film, Rose visits the site of Sobibor Death Camp for the first time. With her granddaughters, she sees the train tracks that brought her mother and brother into this camp in the wilderness. She learns that within an hour of disembarking, they were in the gas chambers. She walks the path they walked to their death 77 years ago. Rose and her granddaughters say Kaddish for her mother and brother at the site of the mass grave where the ashes of tens of thousands of victims are buried. Thanks to her Mother’s bravery and foresight, Rose escaped the deportations to Sobibor. With the help of the Polish farmer, she assumed a Polish identity and survived the war hiding in plain sight in Bremen, Germany, where she volunteered as a Polish labourer, along with one of her surviving aunts. They worked in a rope factory, living in a house of 80 Polish women. Rose lived in perpetual fear that she would be found out and denounced as Jewish. In 1945 Bremen was liberated by the British. Later in life Rose reunited with the Polish family that saved her life. The granddaughter of the Polish farmer now lives in Toronto.
MAXWELL SMART (Formerly OZIAC FROMM)
B. June 1930 Buczacz, Poland (now Ukraine). Now living in Montreal.
Maxwell is one of just 100 Jews that survived from his hometown Buczacz/Buchach in what is now Ukraine (original population 8000). Sixty-two members of his extended family perished. He doesn’t have a single photo of his family because he lost everything in the Holocaust. Maxwell’s father is killed within the first 3 months of the German occupation of Buczacz in 1941. 11-year-old Maxwell, his mother and younger sister are kicked out of their home and forced into a ghetto. In 1943 his family are rounded-up in a clearance of the ghetto. He witnesses his partially-blind grandfather being shot in the head. Maxwell and his mother and sister are held in a jail cell with many other Jews. After two days, they are lined up to be loaded onto trucks. Just before she gets on the truck, Maxwell’s mother begs him to walk away and save himself. He somehow walks away from the trucks and soldiers, escaping over a bridge. Maxwell never sees his mother or sister again. He assumes they were murdered on a now infamous killing site in the town called Fedor Hill. In the film we travel to Ukraine with an organization called Yahad-In Unum, who are dedicated to identifying every place where genocide took place during the Holocaust. They treat each site as a crime-scene and track down eye-witnesses who saw the killings. On Fedor Hill we hear harrowing details of the killings from an elderly eye-witness, and conduct a ballistic examination of the site, discovering artifacts left by both the victims and the perpetrators of the mass killings that claimed the lives of Maxwell’s mother and sister.
In 1943 Maxwell had escaped Buczacz, and after a brief stay with farmer Jasko Rudnicki, who risked everything to help Maxwell, Maxwell moves out into the woods where he has to survive alone. He digs himself a crude bunker. He has no clothing, no shoes, he is starving, and doesn’t wash for months. He is incredibly lonely. Then one day he encounters another boy in the woods. Janek is a couple years younger than Maxwell. His parents have both disappeared (presumed captured and killed) and he is wondering alone and helpless. Maxwell welcomes this boy, overjoyed to have a companion, and the boys live together in the bunker. Months later, the two boys wake one morning to hear shooting. After a while they venture out of the bunker to explore and they discover 7 bodies lying in the blood-stained snow. It is a group of Jews from a nearby bunker who have been discovered. They are all dead, but on closer inspection Maxwell and Janek see something moving on the other side of the river. Persuading a reluctant Janek to brave the freezing river with him, Maxwell crosses the river. Together they find a baby girl alive in the arms of her dead mother. They rescue the baby and bring her to their bunker. The following day, Maxwell locates another woman in hiding, who miraculously recognizes the baby as her niece. They give the baby over to her aunt, and never see the girl again. Days after the rescue of the baby, Janek dies of hypothermia. Maxwell is alone again, and for 80 years he holds himself responsible for the death of his friend. If I hadn’t made Janek go into that cold water he would still be with me today.
In the film Maxwell travels to Israel where he visits the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Centre. There is a project underway here to document every single victims of the Holocaust. Maxwell searches their central database for Janek’s name. He finds a page of testimony for Janek, submitted by an uncle living in Tel Aviv. Maxwell visits Janek’s surviving family – an uncle, aunt and cousin – and tells them the truth about their nephew. How he hid with Maxwell, how he rescued a baby girl and how he died. The family had never known what happened to Janek, for them he was another lost victim of the holocaust. The aunt absolves Maxwell from any guilt he has about Janek’s death, insisting that he saved Janek, he protected him, and that Janek’s death was not his fault. Maxwell has always wondered what happened to the baby girl that he saved. In Tel Aviv he meets researcher Natasza Niedzielska who has been looking into the story of the rescue of the baby girl. By cross-referencing testimonies, she has actually managed to find the name of the baby, and has discovered that she survived the war and is today living in Haifa. For the first time in 76 years Maxwell is reunited with the baby that he saved in 1943.
HELEN YERMUS (nee VERBLUNSKY)
B. Sept 1932 (87 years old) Kovno (now Kaunas), Lithuania. Now lives in Toronto.
After the Nazis occupied Lithuania in 1941, Helen’s family were forced into a ghetto where they lived for three years. Incredibly, there is a photo of 11-year-old Helen in the ghetto. It was forbidden for Jews to take photographs, but Helen remembers posing and being told its ‘for the archives’. The photographer was George Kadish, a Jewish photographer who secretly documented ghetto life by shooting through a buttonhole in his coat. He then buried his negatives under the ghetto. The films were recovered after Lithuania was liberated. Helen didn’t know that the photo had survived until much later in her life. She says the photo ‘found her’ – a friend saw it as part of an exhibit at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington and recognized Helen. Looking at it now she says ‘this photo tells my life story. You can see why I survived’ – she looks like a teenager in the photo, not an 11-year-old child. Children were not useful to the Nazis. They couldn’t work. So they were murdered. Helen’s biggest regret is that her brother Avramaleh (Little Abraham) isn’t in the photo with her. She does not have a single photo of him.
Helen is haunted by the moment 6-year-old Avram was forcibly taken from her arms during a ‘Children’s Action’ in the ghetto on 27 March 1944. This was the day that guards rolled into the ghetto in trucks, with dogs, and guns and seized all the children. Helen’s little brother Avram was torn from her arms while guards set a dog on her. Helen never saw him again. She has always lived with the guilt of letting him go. She doesn’t know where he was taken to die. In the film, Helen’s grandson Andrew Greenwald (a Kindergarten teacher) journeys to Kaunas Lithuania on behalf of Helen, who has herself vowed never to return. Andrew discovers that Avram was likely taken to a Nazi prison and extermination centre on the dge of Kaunas called The IX Fort, put against a wall, and shot. Andrew stands at the wall still riddled with bullet holes and confronts this truth.
In July 1944 the Kovno Ghetto was closed and Helen and her parents were deported on trains west. She remembers standing in a cattle car, clinging to her parents, not knowing where they were going. After days with no food, or sanitation, they arrived at a station and the men were separated from the women. That was the last time she saw her father. (He was sent to Dachau and never seen again). Helen and her mother were sent to Stutthof concentration camp in Northern Poland. On arrival at the camp, Helen remembers being forced into a room full of shower heads with her mother. They believed they were going to be gassed. But moments later water came out.
In the film her grandson Andrew visits the Stutthof camp museum and discovers that Helen was injected with the poison phenol, and the reason she survived was because a Jewish doctor in charge of measuring the doses, halved them, hoping to safe lives. Helen was liberated by the Russians in May 1945 and around that time she met another Jewish girl, her same age, and also from Kovno. Her name was Reva Rubin. They bonded for several weeks just after liberation. Reva was dying, but she did manage to tell Helen that she also had a little brother who had been given away to a non-Jewish family back in Lithuania. Shortly after Reva told Helen this information, Reva died, as did Reva’s mother. Helen has always felt a duty to tell Reva and Mrs Rubin’s story and has spent 75 years wondering whatever happened to Reva’s little brother? Did he survive the war, and if so did anyone ever go back for him? Does he know what happened to his family? In our film, we reveal to Helen that we have found Reva’s brother living in Israel, and they meet for the first time. Helen has information for him about his sister and mother that he never knew.